465. ‘Start!’, by The Jam

The Jam make a quick return to top spot, with a very famous bass-line. One that you may have heard before…

Start!, by The Jam (their 2nd of four #1s)

1 week, 31st August – 7th September 1980

‘Start!’ is notoriously indebted to The Beatles’ ‘Taxman’ – there’s no avoiding the fact that the bass riff is pretty much a note for note copy – but while the former has a hash-haze to it, the latter is a squeaky-tight, short and sharp blast of punk-funk. That’s right. I’m inventing new genres as I go along…

It’s a song about a one-night stand… It’s not important for me to know your name… Or some kind of fleeting encounter… If we communicate for two minutes only it will be e-nough… At first glance it’s less of a war cry, compared to the band’s first chart-topper, but it’s actually just as cynical. Knowing that someone in this life, Loves with a passion called hate…

I’m really not sure if Paul Weller is grateful for their two-minute connection, or if he’s glad about never, ever seeing this person again. What I am sure about is that this is a great pop song: minimalist, with razor-sharp guitars and cool drum-fills. It’s as natty as The Jam’s mod-suits and shades combo in the video.

Speaking of the video, the single release of ‘Start!’ shaves fifteen seconds off the album version, trimming the gritty solo and losing the horns that play out over the closing refrain. For me the horns add to the funk here, placing the record firmly in the early-eighties, so if you were choosing between the versions I’d go album every time.

Without wanting to disrespect what I think is a great record, I think a sharp-blasting, one-week #1 like this needs only a sharp blast of a blog post on it. ‘Start!’ probably gets lost among The Jam’s better-known hits, ‘Going Underground’ before it and ‘That’s Entertainment’ after (which charted at #21 by selling only imported copies – a sign of the band’s popularity in 1980). It was also the only one of their four chart-toppers not to enter at the top. But it’s good one, and if this post has just turned you onto the song’s quality, then that will be a start!

464. ‘Ashes to Ashes’, by David Bowie

Hot on ABBA’s heels, here’s another triumphant return to the top of the charts for a seventies icon.

Ashes to Ashes, by David Bowie (his 2nd of five #1s)

2 weeks, 17th – 31st August 1980

Unlike ABBA, however, this is only David Bowie’s second visit to the #1 spot, and his first with a new song (his earlier chart-topper being a re-release of his debut hit ‘Space Oddity’). It seems that Bowie could score his very biggest hits only if he was singing about Major Tom.

Do you remember a guy that’s been, In such an early song…? The fourth wall is broken in the first lines, while a woozy, harsh riff plays out on an instrument I am completely unable to name. It’s very new, quite avant-garde, the most eighties moment yet in this countdown. There’s also a reggae-ish feel to it, in the beat, and in the singer’s delivery.

It’s a bit of a hotch-potch, really. As with a lot of Bowie’s work, I wish I liked it more than I do. The verses are where my attention wanders the most. The lyrics and the beat trip over one another, and you’re left a bit lost. For the most part, though, I come down on the side of not caring if music is a bit beyond me, as long as it’s catchy. Luckily, this record has a killer chorus.

Ashes to ashes, Fun to funky, We know Major Tom’s a junkie… Is David Bowie Major Tom, and this record a look back at his struggles with drugs in the late seventies? Is he the Starman turned addict? Is Major Tom actually heroin…? The repeated closing lines… My mama said, To get things done, You better not mess with Major Tom… would perhaps bear this out.

The sinister music video – the most expensive ever made at this point in time – does little to clarify: it features Bowie in a clown suit, being followed by a bulldozer, releasing doves and rocking in a padded cell. (But I did find a great story from the making this video… On location, an elderly dog-walker refused to get out of one shot, and when the director asked if he knew who this man – pointing at the David Bowie – was, the old bloke replied: ‘Yeah, it’s some cunt in a clown suit.’ Bowie wore the insult with pride, apparently, for years after.)

I had a friend growing up who was obsessed with David Bowie, and with this song in particular. He was a bit of a pretentious arse, and perhaps I’ve always unfairly associated ‘Ashes to Ashes’ with him. Except… listening to it properly now, over and over, I’m not sure I wasn’t right all along. It is arty, and clever, and perhaps pretentious. Though both feature Major Tom, the shift from ‘Space Oddity’ to this is huge: perhaps the biggest change in sound between chart-toppers by any act so far. Which is fine. Good, even. Some people have to push the envelope, and Bowie did it better than anybody else, but sometimes it’s beyond me.

That doesn’t mean I don’t love a lot of his music. It’s just frustrating that the Bowie I enjoy most never made the top of the charts. Of his five #1s, four are from the eighties, while the seventies’ #1 was actually from the sixties. Hey ho. It’s becoming apparent that very few acts are best represented by their chart-toppers. At least he won’t have as long to wait for his next one…

463. ‘The Winner Takes It All’, by ABBA

In which ABBA return, triumphant, to the top of the charts, with their best song. Shortest post ever…

The Winner Takes It All, by ABBA (their 8th of nine #1s)

2 weeks, from 3rd – 17th August 1980

OK, fine. I should write a bit more. For a song to be ABBA’s best, it has to be a pretty good song. But why is ‘The Winner Takes It All’ so good? I’m no musicologist – if indeed that’s an actual job – and so cannot talk about chord progressions, keys, and melodic shifts (though I’m sure this record is brimming with them). I’m not sure I can look at this record objectively at all. I grew up with this song. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know this song.

It’s a song full of moments. From the opening piano line – confident, stately – which announces that yes, this is ABBA and yes, something great is coming. The moment right at the start of the second verse, when the beat kicks in. The But tell me does she kiss… start to the third verse. The spoken but you see… The fade-out, when the vocals shift to the background and the trademark piano takes over again. It’s long for a pop song, but it’s exactly as long as it needs to be. Everything that’s there – pianos, guitars, strings, synths, backing vocals – is essential. There’s nothing extravagant about it (which isn’t something you can always say about ABBA songs).

A song about love as a game, with lovers holding cards, and the Gods throwing dice. It could come across as a bit silly. A bit flowery. But it doesn’t, because Agnetha sells it. She sells it, and then some, from the opening I don’t wanna talk… line through to the closing The winner takes it all… that she belts out in a manner unlike any ABBA single before. This is pop as a stage show, as opera. It’s melodramatic, and unrepentantly sad. There’s no sign of her moving on, of a brighter tomorrow. She’s having a good old wallow. She may even be enjoying this wallow, in a self-indulgent way. Why should she complain? Yet she still does. She doesn’t want to talk… but then she sings a full-blown song about it.

It’s been well-documented that, by this stage in ABBA’s career, the personal relationships between the members of the band had collapsed. It feels lazy to suggest that that’s what makes this song so powerful. But just imagine: Bjorn writes a song – while drunk apparently – about his recent divorce. Then hands it to his ex-wife to sing! She’s the ‘bad guy’ that she’s singing about! (Although Bjorn has denied that it’s specifically about their own divorce.) Still, that’s not your usual husband-wife, singer-songwriter dynamic. You can really hear the pain in her voice, in the lines before the final, earth-shattering chorus: And I understand, You’ve come to shake my hand…

I know people who don’t like ABBA. They’re a dying breed, thankfully, as the band has long since shaken off the cheesy, gay-bar reputation they had when I was growing up. But they still walk among us, the weirdos. The lady next to you on the bus, the guy that just served you in Starbucks… might not like ABBA. It’s best not to think about it. I can’t understand how you could listen to ‘The Winner Takes It All’ and not like it, not get it, not see it for the five minutes of genius that it is. Anyway. ABBA are back at the top of the charts, after what feels like ages. But, alas, they have just one more #1 to come…

462. ‘Use It Up and Wear It Out’, by Odyssey

One thing that’s surprised me about the charts in the first six months of the ‘80s: nobody seems to have told the record-buying public that disco is dead. They clearly missed the ‘disco sucks’ memo…

Use It Up and Wear It Out, by Odyssey (their 1st and only #1) 

2 weeks, 20th July – 3rd August 1980

Here come Odyssey then, with another body-shaking anthem (it does actually include the line shake your body down to the ground) that demands a dancefloor to be filled. This is one of those songs that come along every so often in this countdown, where I go ‘Oh, so it’s this song…’ A song you’ve been hearing in the background for your entire life without ever wondering what it is or who it’s by.

But on further inspection, this is a song I should have been paying attention to. It’s a great slice of disco-funk, with some calypso thrown in for good measure. Like the other disco-influenced #1s of 1980, there’s a lot more going on than just ‘disco’: see either of Blondie’s hits, Fern Kinney, the Detroit Spinners, or our previous chart-topper ‘Xanadu’.

Here’s a question: can a song be simultaneously cheesy and cool? If it can, then this might be the very song. In the ‘cheesy’ corner: the slide whistles and the 1… 2… 3… Shake your body down… chorus. In the ‘cool’ corner: the funky bass and the dod-d-d-dododo scatting at the end. It’s not a particularly verse-bridge-chorus kind of song, meaning that it can be chopped up and remixed in various different ways – as all the best disco records can.

Gonna use it up, Gonna wear it out, Ain’t nothin’ left in this whole world I care about… Actually, the lyrics here are a bit depressive, a bit cynical, for a disco record. The singer is dancing because that’s all there’s left to do. She’s going to dance herself to death, perhaps (or at least into a sweaty, dripping mess.) Add it to your ‘end of the world’ playlist now!

Odyssey were a New York based band, who have had a revolving cast of members, but who were a trio at the time of their sole #1 hit. They are still performing to this day. ‘Use It Up and Wear It Out’ was their second of five Top 10 hits in the UK between 1977 and 1982, a much better return than they ever managed in their native US. Disco really was dead over there…

461. ‘Xanadu’, by Olivia Newton-John & Electric Light Orchestra

Finally. One of the seventies’ best groups top the charts, a few months too late. ELO and ONJ are taking us off to a mythical land…

Xanadu, by Olivia Newton-John (her 3rd and final #1) & Electric Light Orchestra (their 1st and only #1) 

2 weeks, 6th – 20th July 1980

To be honest, this has never been my favourite Electric Light Orchestra song – is it anyone’s? – but it’s still a good slice of Jeff Lynne glam-pop. The wall-of-sound production and the beefy drums take us back to the height of glam, while the tempo and the strings are very disco. It’s a throwback, already, given the spiky, new-wave chart-toppers that we’ve already heard this year.

It’s also nice to hear Olivia Newton-John warbling away on another #1, after her two ‘Grease’ mega-hits in 1978. It’s a song that requires her to sing in a pretty high pitch, but she carries it off. Her Xanad-ooh-ooh… in the chorus, twinned with the piano riff, is an effective hook, while the Now we are here… backing vocals are pure ELO.

Amazingly, this is already the second #1 single to reference ‘Xanadu’ in the title, the lost city in northern China, seat of the Mongol Khans, ‘found’ by Marco Polo… It has now been named twice as many times as any other place. A place… as Olivia tells it, Where nobody dared to go, The love that we came to know, They called it Xanadu…

All very mystical. Except, in the movie that this record soundtracks, ‘Xanadu’ is a nightclub. A roller-disco. (I, to be fair, knew several nightclubs in my youth best described as ‘places nobody should dare to go’, not without a fair amount of alcohol inside them…) I have never seen the movie: it was awarded a Golden Raspberry but has since been reclaimed as a camp classic. Both ELO and ONJ scored further hits from the soundtrack, including the brilliant ‘All Over the World’.

The one thing I can’t get behind with this record is the ending. The soaring, distorted high-note. It reminds me – and this might just be because both involve Olivia Newton-John – of the stupid ending in ‘Grease’, with the flying car. A simple fade-out would have done much more nicely. But what do I know? Jeff Lynne apparently rates this as his best song.

I started this post with the word ‘finally’, and it really did take a while for Electric Light Orchestra to score a UK #1. ‘Xanadu’ was their 14th Top 10 hit, in a run stretching back to 1972. They would only have one further Top 10, before the hits dried up. (To do them justice, I’ll have to do a ‘Best of the Rest’ at some point.) Olivia Newton-John faces a similar chart trajectory – a few more hits before a mid-eighties drought. Meanwhile, Xanadu itself is still waiting for someone to score another #1 with its name, to complete the hat-trick.

460. ‘Crying’, by Don McLean

Hot on the heels of ‘Suicide Is Painless’, we are crying, crying, crying… A depressing double-whammy at the top of the charts…

Crying, by Don McLean (his 2nd and final #1) 

3 weeks, 15th June – 6th July 1980

‘Crying’ was, of course, originally recorded by Roy Orbison. As I do every time I approach a cover of a famous hit, I try to blank out any knowledge of the original. Which is always hard, but especially so when said original was by The Big ‘O’. Don McLean takes what was already a ballad, and slows it down further. We are moving at treacle pace here.

I was alright, For a while, I could smile, For a while… It’s a classic Orbison theme: hiding your heartbreak behind your dark glasses. But when I saw you last night, You held my hand so tight… And it’s effective, as we’ve all been there – watching as a former crush moves on. And though you wished me well, You couldn’t tell, That I’d been crying… 

My biggest problem with this take – and let’s just have it out and admit that this isn’t a patch on the original – is that all the melodrama has been stripped out. Roy had a latin beat, strings and a marimba… You could samba as you cried. Don goes for a much more straight-forward, country version, and suddenly the lyrics sound trite and basic. The music plods as you wait for it to reach the climax.

Another sizeable problem is that for all Don McLean’s skills as a singer, he isn’t Roy Orbison. The climax here is the word ‘crying’ repeated over and over. Orbison rattles the roof with it, as he does on all his big heartbreak bangers: ‘Running Scared’, ‘It’s Over’ and the like. McLean can’t, and his voice ends up sounding reedy. That’s not to say he can’t put emotion into his songs. I find his previous #1, ‘Vincent’, heartfelt and heartbreakingly sad. Here, though, he over reaches, and his Cry-y-y-ying sounds… like Miss Piggy?

It’s still a pleasant melody, and I am enjoying it to some extent, but it’s a bit of a wet-blanket of a song. And yet another country chart-topper that I can’t quite get behind. At least, quickly scanning down my list, it looks like the last one for a while… This was also Don McLean’s last hit in the UK (he had barely charted since ‘Vincent’ either) until a re-release of ‘American Pie’ in the early ‘90s. He remains active, though, and released his 22nd studio album just last year.

459. ‘Theme from M*A*S*H (Suicide Is Painless)’, by The Mash

This next #1 sounds like a blast from the past… Originally released in 1970, the theme from ‘M*A*S*H’ took a full decade to make the top of the charts…

Theme from M*A*S*H (Suicide is Painless), by The Mash (their 1st and only #1)

3 weeks, 25th May – 15th June 1980

The why and wherefore of that we’ll get to in a bit. To the song first, though. It’s a simple enough, folksy ditty. It’s got a very late-sixties, post-Woodstock comedown feel to it. It’s also very melancholy. A song titled ‘Suicide Is Painless’ was always going to be a bit depressing…

Through early morning fog I see, Visions of the things to be, The pains that are withheld for me, I realise and I can see… The main thrust being that life is shit, and that suicide is always an option. By verse three, the ‘sword of time’ is piercing our skin, and everyone’s feeling thoroughly miserable. The singers, meanwhile, harmonise on the choruses like creepy Beach Boys.

I’m going to stick my neck out and say that this would never have been a hit had it not been associated with a huge film and TV franchise. It was the theme to the movie first, in 1970, and then the spin-off TV series between 1972 and ’83. I guess demand had built up over the years thanks to the show’s success, and this re-release sent it crashing up to the top of the charts.

The record is credited to ‘The Mash’, but in reality it was performed by some uncredited session singers who probably never received a belated dollar for their huge hit. One person who did make some money from it was Michael Altman, the fourteen-year-old son of the film’s director Robert. His dad allegedly requested ‘the stupidest lyric ever’, and the kid obliged in five minutes flat.

I think ‘stupidest lyric ever’ is a bit harsh, but the second you realise it was written by a moody teenager then lines like: The game of life is hard to play, I’m gonna lose it anyway… suddenly make complete sense. I think the dumbest bit of the whole song is actually the chorus: Suicide is painless, It brings on many changes… One of pop music’s great understatements there.

I wonder if there was any controversy at the time, either in 1970 or ten years later, around the theme of suicide in a #1 single, or TV theme, and the idea that it might be ‘painless’? It’d raise a few eyebrows nowadays for sure. Either way, it’s a song that’s been covered many a time. In the UK, the most notable has been The Manic Street Preachers’ version, which returned the tune to the Top 10 in 1992. It’s quite a haunting take on the song, too, given the Manics’ guitarist Richey Edwards’ still-unexplained disappearance a couple of years later.

458. ‘What’s Another Year’, by Johnny Logan

Eurovision klaxon! It’s been a few years since we’ve had to sound it, but 1980 was one of those years when the winning record also went all the way on the pop charts…

What’s Another Year, by Johnny Logan (his 1st and only #1)

2 weeks, 11th – 25th May 1980

Some Eurovision singles have been classic – ‘Waterloo’, ‘Congratulations’ – other have been less classic – ‘All Kinds of Everything’, ‘Save Your Kisses…’. Into which camp, then, does ‘What’s Another Year’ slide into…? Well…

I won’t keep you on tenterhooks. It’s the latter camp. From the opening seconds, when a gratuitous, easy-listening saxophone riff rises up, you know where this record is heading. We’re back in David Soul territory: a handsome lad – think a slightly more rugged Donny Osmond – crooning his heart out. I’ve been crying, Such a long time, With such a lot of pain, In every tear… What’s another year? The tweens and the grannies must have lapped it up.

In my post on the previous #1, ‘Geno’, I repeated my belief that pop music, at the very least, shouldn’t be boring. ‘What’s Another Year’ is a well-produced, and well-sung, song… but it’s dull. And that sax… It comes back for a pure elevator-slash-lounge-bar solo, that is a horrible premonition of what’s to come in the middle of this decade. To be fair, the song isn’t actually about a lost love, but about the death of the writers’ mother, which does make it a bit more heartfelt in my eyes.

(I love the weeping eye in the corner of this sleeve, just in case you were in any doubt what type of song this was…)

Of course, this record won Logan, and Ireland, the Eurovision Song Contest. Johnny clearly felt that the continent hadn’t suffered enough, as he re-recorded his biggest hit several times, including in Spanish and German. (I think the version I listened to for this post was the original.) And he wasn’t done there… This man is Mr. Eurovision. He won it again in 1987, with ‘Hold Me Close’ (that made #2 in the UK, and is even slicker and limper than this one…) Then he went and wrote the 1992 winner, ‘Why Me?’ for Linda Martin, on top of having written the 1984 runner-up, ‘Terminal 3’, for the same woman. (Of all four songs, ‘Terminal 3’ is by far the best: a Bonnie Tyler-esque barnstormer.)

Ireland may have won Eurovision more times than any other country, but goodness they’ve done so with some utter tripe. Anyway, Johnny Logan struggled to score any non-Eurovision hits in the UK, but he’s had better luck in his homeland, releasing his latest album in 2017, and scoring Top 10 hits as late as 2013. And I might as well break it to you now… we will also be sounding the Eurovision klaxon in 1981. But, boy oh boy, that record will be everything that this one is not!

457. ‘Geno’, by Dexys Midnight Runners

Our next number one starts off with some live chanting, and a short, sharp horn riff, giving the impression that we’re heading off in the same 2-tone, ska direction that The Specials took us… Until it switches tack and suddenly we’ve got a brassy, soulful saxophone line leading the way.

Geno, by Dexys Midnight Runners (their 1st of two #1s)

2 weeks, 27th April – 11th May 1980

And that’s not the only abrupt shift over the course of ‘Geno’ – it’s a song that’s chopped up into lots of little bits. Lots of catchy little chunks. There are the woozy verses… Back in sixty-eight in a sweaty club… with lyrics that need serious Googling thanks to lead-singer Kevin Rowland’s unique delivery… Before Jimmy’s Machine and the Rocksteady Rub…

It’s a potted history of the band, or of Rowland’s formative years, bunking school and sneaking in to clubs to see soul legend Geno Washington step on stage, swinging his towel high… Then the tempo swings again, and there’s an insistent post-punk drive to the middle-eight. Academic inspiration, You gave me none… And then there’s the live chanting, which is actually sampled from a Van Morrison live album.

When writing these posts, I usually jot down my impressions on a song without looking at any other sources. You know, if you read that such-and-such a song is included in the Rolling Stone magazine’s Top 500 of all time, then it might influence your judgement… But with this record, I’m a bit stumped. The components are catchy, the oh-oh-oh Geno hook is great, but I’m struggling to place it.

It’s another insistent record, yet another chart-topper from ’79-’80 that is brimming with confidence and with ideas. Listening to this era’s chart-toppers is like going to an art school’s open day and being performed at by some very confident young wannabes. It’s all very impressive; but it can get a bit much.

So, do I like this song? Should I be enjoying this? The consensus seems to be that this is a classic… but that’s probably just because the Runners’ next chart-topper is so overplayed and people want to look cool. I think the big negative here is that the song’s topic is quite niche – a description of a gig – and the vocals so unintelligible. Still, it’s not boring, and that is always something.

This was just the second single that Dexys Midnight Runners’ had ever released, after their formation in Birmingham in 1978. Their name is the shortened version of Dexedrine, an amphetamine popular in clubs at the time, and which is referenced in this song: This man was my bomber, My dexys, My high… Oh Geno! It’s also the reason why there’s no apostrophe in the band’s name, which goes against all my English teaching instincts… They will be back, in good time, with one of the decade’s signature hits. One that may be overplayed, but that I will have no problem justifying as a classic!

456. ‘Call Me’, by Blondie

In which Blondie return after only six weeks away – that’s a very short time between chart-toppers, really – with another disco-rock stomper.

Call Me, by Blondie (their 4th of six #1s)

1 week, 20th – 27th April 1980

About a year ago, when records like ‘Tragedy’ and ‘I Will Survive’ were monopolising the chart’s top-spot, I killed disco off. It had peaked, I said. New-wave, post-punk, electronica were about to take over. But it’s not been that simple… Acts keep sticking a disco beat on their songs and scoring hits: Pink Floyd, Fern Kinney, Dr. Hook… And the masters of it, Blondie.

As with ‘Atomic’, there’s another whip-snapping intro, a drum-roll, and a beat that grabs you along for the ride. And what a ride. Colour me your colour baby, Colour me your car… Not sure what that’s all about, to be honest, but this isn’t the sort of song where you stop to think about the lyrics.

Again, as she did in the band’s previous #1, Debbie Harry is letting loose compared to the ‘Parallel Lines’ hits. Call me! she hollers at the top of her voice… On the line, Call me call me any anytime… It’s pretty clear what kind of call she’s talking about (think Donna Summer in ‘Hot Stuff’…) Anytime, anyplace, anywhere, any day, any way…

‘Call Me’ didn’t feature on any Blondie album – it was recorded for the soundtrack of ‘American Gigolo’, starring Richard Gere, which perhaps explains the unrepentant lyrics and why it followed so hot on ‘Atomic’s heels. The soundtrack version is a full eight minutes long, with beefier synths, and a verse about being taken out and shown off, as all the best gigolos want to be. The producer behind the soundtrack was none other than Giorgio Moroder, which means he’s now been involved in three UK chart-toppers with three different acts, and this won’t be his last…

Few bands have the sort of golden runs that Blondie were having in 1979-80. In just over a year they have had four chart-toppers, all of which I’d say were at least eights out of ten. (If you insist: ‘Heart of Glass’ 9.5, ‘Sunday Girl’ 8, ‘Atomic’ 9, ‘Call Me 8.5) Their one release that didn’t top the charts in amongst all this was ‘Dreaming’, a #2 and another stone-cold classic, much more post-punk than disco (and another 8.5, since you ask.)

Sadly, they have but one chart-topper to come, and – without wanting to give too much away – one that isn’t quite in the same league. And of course they’ll have a huge comeback almost twenty years later, but as great as that #1 is I would count it as something separate. Anyway. Let’s leave Blondie here, at the peak of their powers, and their chart success. A band that sound great anywhere, anytime, any day…