490. ‘Begin the Beguine (Volver a Empezar)’, by Julio Iglesias

For their next trick, the charts will be throwing up a spot of Spanish crooner-disco. And the first question that springs to mind is: why…?

Begin the Beguine (Volver a Empezar), by Julio Iglesias (his 1st and only #1)

1 week, 29th November – 6th December 1981

Why, at the tail-end of 1981, at the fag-end of the disco age, did renowned Spanish smoothie Julio Iglesias manage a British number one single? It’s a record that pulls out all the classic disco stops: strings, horns, tacky guitar sound effects… All things I’m a sucker for and so, if you were expecting a scathing write up for this cheese-fest then I’m sorry. Look elsewhere…

When they begin, The beguine… It starts off in English, but that opening line is it. The rest in en Español, making this the most foreign-language #1 since ‘Je T’Aime…’ What is it about? ‘Volver’ means to return, while ‘Emepezar’ means… Well, my Duolingo Spanish lets me down. (It means, roughly: ‘Go back and start’, so I’m guessing that, when they begin the beguine, Julio begins to reminisce…) Also, what is a ‘beguine’? It sounds to my ears like a vegetable; but it is a dance, a sort of Caribbean foxtrot.

I’m enjoying this way more than I should. It’s utter cheese, slicker than a seal’s arse, and Julio croons the absolute life out of it. The fact that it’s in a foreign language, incomprehensible to the majority of the British public, probably makes it more appealing. Adds an air of mystery, or something. Just like if ‘Je T’Aime…’ had been sung in a Yorkshire accent, those lines about ‘coming and going between your kidneys’ would have sounded a lot less sexy…

As it is, you start to understand why Julio Iglesias can claim to have bedded more than three thousand women. He is Tom Jones, Engelbert and Barry Manilow all in one. That sexual statistic was the one thing I actually knew about him before listening to this song (that and the fact he has an equally smooth and sexy singing son.) But he is one of the most successful recording artists in history. The best-seller ever in Spain, as well as the biggest foreign seller in Brazil, Italy and France. China awarded him in 2013 for being the ‘most popular international artist’. On top of all that, he only went and started off his career as a goalkeeper for Real Madrid.

Back to the ‘why’, though? Why now? ‘Begin the Beguine’ was originally an English language song, written by Cole Porter in 1935 and recorded by all the big bands of the time. So it would have been well-known to the over-fifties. Plus, in the late-seventies Iglesias had started to record in languages other than Spanish. Maybe it was just a combination of rising profile and a tune people knew? Either way, I don’t begrudge this silly little disco interlude. It’s fun, and I’m enjoying ‘Begin the Beguine’ more than I’ve ever enjoyed his son Enrique’s overwrought #1 from twenty years later.

I admit: I assumed Julio was dead, as I assumed he’d have to have been around fifty-five when he recorded this. But no. He was only thirty-eight when this made #1. Younger than Cliff, and the same age The Police’s Andy Summers, which surprised me. Sadly, this hit didn’t kick off much of a singles-chart career in Britain, but Julio did return on a few occasion in the 1980s, duetting with legends like Willie Nelson and Stevie Wonder. It is both Hola and Adios, then, to a Latin legend.

484. ‘Japanese Boy’, by Aneka

This week, we’re off to discover the mysteries of the Orient… The opening chords sound like the famous intro to ‘Kung Fu Fighting’ remixed, a cheap sort of way to show we’re not in Kansas anymore. All that’s missing is a huge gong being banged…

Japanese Boy, by Aneka (her 1st and only #1)

1 week, 23rd – 30th August 1981

Then in comes a driving synth riff with a familiar rhythm and tempo… Disco’s back (again!) baby, for a week at least. It’s a toe-tapper, for sure; the sort of record you can’t help dancing to, even if you don’t really want to. And you may well not want to dance to this because, let’s be honest, it’s a bit naff…

He said that loved me, Never would go, Uh-oh, Uh-oh… Aneka’s been left all alone. Her happy home’s been broken up. Mister can’t you tell me where my love has gone, He’s a Japanese boy… Meanwhile a very tacky tick-tock effect keeps time, and there are the same ‘pew-pews’ from Kelly Marie’s ‘Feels Like I’m in Love’. Maybe the two songs were recorded in the same studio? I feel strangely proud that two of the early-eighties’ trashiest (and catchiest) #1s were Scottish.

For yes, no matter the, um, chopsticks in her hair. No matter how convincing she looks in a kimono. Aneka is not, brace yourselves, actually Japanese. Her real name is Mary Sandeman, and she’s from Edinburgh. You can look at it two ways: it’s a white woman singing in a high-pitch, pretending to be a geisha. While you could argue that she usually sang in a high-pitch (she did), the video below in which she bows and dances like an obedient courtesan does look a bit iffy these days…

Or you could look at the positives. It’s a white woman who’s been dating, maybe even marrying – definitely sexualising – an Asian man, in 1981. Something that Hollywood still gets stick for not doing enough of thirty years later. Is ‘Japanese Boy’ both incredibly progressive and incredibly backwards…? Or is it just a silly disco hit that doesn’t deserve either weighty tag?

I have to admit I’m enjoying this. It’s a musical Big Mac – lacking in any sort of proper sustenance, every verse, chorus and chord change signalled a mile off, but completely hitting the spot. And it seems that Europe agreed wholeheartedly that summer – it hit #1 from Ireland to Switzerland. One place that didn’t agree was Japan. All the ‘Kung Fu Fighting’ bits I mentioned in the intro…? Japanese record labels thought they sounded too Chinese (which they obviously are), proving yet again that Westerners struggle to differentiate anything east of India.

This was Aneka’s one and only hit (the follow-up made #50) and she’s pretty much disowned it these days, refusing offers to do oldies shows. The most bizarre thing about this whole story is that Mary Sandeman is actually a well-respected Scottish folk singer. The follow-up album to this Japanese excursion was titled ‘Reflections on Scotland’. Even the ‘B’-side to this very smash hit was a cover of Robbie Burns’ ‘Ae Fond Kiss’. ‘Japanese Boy’ was her one attempt at something different… and it ended up being a chart-topping single, written about in WordPress blogs decades later. That’s life.

466. ‘Feels Like I’m in Love’, by Kelly Marie

Grab something tight, get the hairspray out, down your Lambrini… We’re off to the dancin’.

Feels Like I’m in Love, by Kelly Marie (her 1st and only #1)

2 weeks, 7th – 21st September 1980

This is a pure sugar-rush of a song, a blast of amyl in your nostrils. The beats-per-minute are up, the synths are heavy, the bass is funky… There are times when a track like this sounds cheap and tacky; but there are others when this might just sound like the best thing ever recorded.

It’s also a song that doesn’t waste any time in getting going. Quick crescendo, a glissando, then boom. My head is in a spin, My feet don’t touch the ground… Kelly Marie is in love: spinning head, shaking knees, heart beating like a drum. Well, she’s either in love, or off her tits on disco biscuits. Whatever. She’s having a great time, and that’s the main thing.

This is pure disco, in one sense, and it had been recorded at the genre’s peak, well over a year before becoming a hit. We have Kelly Marie’s homeland to thank for the song’s eventual success. She’s fae Paisley, and the record had been popular in Scottish clubs long before it took off nationally. (Dance music is, for whatever reason, always more popular on the Scottish charts, to this day.) Plus, somehow this sounds exactly like a disco record from Paisley should. And I mean that as a compliment. Probably. It feels like the dance music of the future, too, though: it’s got the pace of Hi-NRG, and the trashy aesthetic of the Stock Aitken Waterman to come.

I have to admit I love the kitschy little details here: the ‘aaahs’, the ‘ch-chs’ and, most of the all, the ‘pew-pew’ heartbeats, which are the tackiest sound effects to feature in a #1 single since Anita Ward’s bell. There are also horns, though only in one version, which I don’t think was the original. (I’ll link to it here, because as with The Jam’s ‘Start!’, the horns only improve things further.)

‘Feels Like I’m in Love’ has an interesting history to it. It was written by Ray Dorset, the lead singer-songwriter of Mungo Jerry. They recorded it in 1977, but it was only ever released as the ‘B’-side to a Belgian single. Theirs is a much more sedate version, lacking in sound effects, and if you struggle to imagine Mungo Jerry performing this song, then get your head around that fact that Dorset wanted to pitch it to Elvis! I’d pay good money to hear that. Sadly, the King died before he could get round to it. Happily, some genius on YouTube has recorded his take on what it may have sounded like, and it is… something.

Kelly Marie also had a long route to the top, where her stay was brief. She’d had a few hits in Europe, including a #1 in France, and would have a few smaller hits after this. Her biggest hit was remixed and re-released in 1990, but that version has had something sapped out of it. The original ‘Feels Like I’m in Love’ is her legacy to the world and, to be fair, there are far worse legacies to leave than this fun slice of Paisley-disco.

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.

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…

455. ‘Working My Way Back to You / Forgive Me, Girl’, by The Detroit Spinners

As vital as The Jam’s polemic first #1 was, you wouldn’t want every chart-topper to be that angry… Luckily for us, here come the (Detroit) Spinners with a relentlessly positive classic.

Working My Way Back to You / Forgive Me, Girl, by The Detroit Spinners (their 1st and only #1)

2 weeks, 6th – 20th April 1980

They are far from the first well-established band to try a disco-ified take on the old vocal-group sound. In fact, they’re pretty late to the party. This record could have been a hit from any point since 1975. And you can approach this in one of two ways… Way A) rolling your eyes at the cheese, and at the drunken memories of every wedding disco you’ve ever attended, or Way B) joining in with the undeniable fun.

I’ll keep working my way back to you babe… The singer’s made a mistake, told some lies, thought he could have his cake and eat it, but now he’s feeling remorse… With a burning love inside… And I love his very deep voiced counterpart: Been prayin’ every day… It has a bit of a karaoke-backing track feel, but that’s part of the charm. It gives you no choice but join in.

When you do, you realise how much of a dick the singer has been. He played around, he loved to make her cry… That matters not. He is coming back, and we are left in no doubt as to his success. ‘Working My Way Back to You’ was (yet another) UK #1 that began life as a song by The Four Seasons, in 1966. Theirs is a very ‘sixties’ version, as good if not better than this cover.

Here, the Spinners had it spliced with a few bars from ‘Forgive Me Girl’, a composition by producer Michael Zager (nothing to do with Zager & Evans, unfortunately), giving us our 2nd recent chart-topping medley after Boney M’s last-but-one Christmas number one. You wouldn’t realise that these were two songs mixed together – ‘Forgive Me Girl’ works perfectly as the bridge – and I’m left relieved that this isn’t another double-‘A’ side (as they take twice as long to write about!)

The Spinners had been around since 1954, and had been charting in the US since the early sixties. Which means that by the time their one and only British chart-topper came around, all four members were in their early-forties. One of the original ‘man-bands’, then! They join the aforementioned Four Seasons, and The Tymes, and even The Tams, in scoring #1s beyond their eras thanks to the popularity of soul and, of course, disco. They are still an active group, too, with one founding member, Henry Fambrough, still present.

Why, though, were the plain old Spinners marketed as The Detroit Spinners, and sometimes the Motown Spinners, in the UK? Well, all thanks to a British folk group who had already laid claim to the name. A couple of decades later the Americans would repay the compliment by forcing Suede to become the considerably less cool London Suede for their US releases…

453. ‘Together We Are Beautiful’, by Fern Kinney

Let’s slow things down a bit, with this next number one. A soft, slinky beat, some strings, and a breathy vocal…

Together We Are Beautiful, by Fern Kinney (her 1st and only #1) 

1 week, 9th – 16th March 1980

Fern Kinney’s voice reminds me a bit of Anita Ward’s: high-pitched and slightly nasal. But it doesn’t grate in the same way. This record doesn’t grate like ‘Ring My Bell’ at all – for better or worse. ‘Ring…’ might have been annoying; but you remembered it. ‘Together We Are Beautiful’ isn’t annoying, really, but it does wash over you without leaving much of a lasting impression.

He walked into my life, And now he’s taking over… It’s a decent opening line, that the song fails to build upon. I’ve gone with better looking guys, He’s gone with prettier lookin’ girls… It’s a middle-aged love song – settling down with someone on a deeper level. Fern doesn’t need love affairs any more… Except the lyrics still descend into stock-standard, love song cheese: I am the rain, He is the sun, And now we’ve made a rainbow… Ick!

What saves this song from being truly cloying – and when Kinney starts wishing that the whole world could fall in love like her and her man, it comes very close – is that it’s delivered in such a fluffy, tongue-in-cheek way that you can easily treat it as a camp novelty. It does drag on a bit, though: another song that shouldn’t have come anywhere near the four-minute mark.

The disco earthquake may have passed, but there will still be aftershocks like this for some time to come. Fern Kinney had been a backing singer who had given it up to be a housewife, before having one final crack at a solo career. And it worked – for this record… She is a bona-fide one-hit wonder. ‘Together We Are Beautiful’ had been around in different versions for a few years, before Kinney had her go.

I had a very vague memory of hearing this song years ago, in an advert that featured a guy with a miniature-sized version of Arsenal and England centre-back Tony Adams… And I am reassured to find out that I hadn’t dreamt it. It was used in a 1999 deodorant ad, which you can now enjoy in all its glory. What would we do without YouTube…?

452. ‘Atomic’, by Blondie

Getting us back on track after (yet another) country detour… Though you could argue that there’s a country twang to the main riff on this one… sort of… Anyway, where were we? Oh yes! Blondie go atomic!

Atomic, by Blondie (their 3rd of six #1s)

2 weeks, 24th February – 9th March 1980

Add this one to the list of great intros: a sort of beautiful cacophony, a remix of the way church bells go wild after a wedding, or on Christmas morning… Ding! Dang! Dong! Apparently its based upon the nursery rhyme ‘Three Blind Mice’ of all things! And then it clicks into that riff. (This intro was, for some reason, cut from the single edit… but let’s just pretend that version doesn’t exist.)

Oh-ho, Make it magnificent, Tonight… Is there a better song to listen before a night out than ‘Atomic’? Back when I was young and going to nightclubs, this was often playing as I picked out a shirt, did my hair, and prayed that the bouncer would ignore the fact that I still looked about thirteen… Oh, your hair is beautiful… Debbie Harry would sing, as if she could see me in the mirror. Oh tonight… Atomic! It’s a fine, fine song. But is it better than ‘Heart of Glass’…?

In some ways they’re very similar. Both rock with a disco beat (or disco with guitars…) and both with a synth breakdown in the middle – of the album versions, anyway. Here, actually, it’s time to quickly resurrect the single-edit that I killed off earlier, as that shortens the breakdown, cuts the bass guitar solo, and repeats the iconic, deep-voiced Atomic! line. It works better as a pop song, which I suppose was the point. ‘Heart of Glass’ was chopped up into various different mixes, too…

The biggest difference between last year’s Blondie and this year’s Blondie is Harry’s voice. On ‘Heart of Glass’ she was restrained, and sarcastic. On ‘Sunday Girl’ she was quite cute. She belts this one out, though, full-throated. A huge echo effect is put on her closing Oh-oh Atomics… adding to this record’s epic feel.

I’d go as far as describing ‘Atomic’ as life-affirming. A song that will psyche you up, pick you up, cheer you up… A song that does everything pop music should. Which is funny, because there’s a school of thought (in so far as pop songs have ‘schools of thought’…) that interprets this song as apocalyptic i.e. it’s the song you’d play just before the bomb goes off. That’s not something I subscribe to, though.

Anyway, I still have a question to answer though: is it better than ‘Heart of Glass’…? Actually, who cares? They’re both brilliant songs. Blondie were brilliant, on top of their game at this point, and will be along again soon with another classic hit. And another one that’s totally atomic!

438. ‘Ring My Bell’, by Anita Ward

There are no two ways about it… Our next number one sounds like the soundtrack to a porno. And that’s before we get to any actual bell ringing…

Ring My Bell, by Anita Ward (her 1st and only #1)

2 weeks, from 10th – 24th June 1979

It’s all chucka-chucka guitars, and a distinctive pew pew sound that sounds like a futuristic arcade shooter (apparently it’s an electronic drum giving us this tight beat). They don’t sound much like bells, though. The chimes in the chorus do: You can ring my bell… Ding-dong-ding-dong…

I’m not sure… Should we be treating this as a novelty? It is very in your face in its attempts to be catchy. Plus, Anita Ward’s voice is an acquired taste. She sounds like she’s going for cute and innocent as she welcomes her man home after a day’s work: Well lay back and relax, While I put away the dishes… But it comes off a little nasal and grating, especially as she hits the chorus’s high notes.

‘Ring My Bell’ was originally a teenybopper song about kids calling one another on the phone. Once Anita got her hands on it, the words were, well, spiced up a bit. You can ring my bell, Anytime, Anywhere, Ring it, Ring it, Ring it ring it, Aaah! What smut! Actually, it’s one basic innuendo stretched out over four minutes, or eight (!) if you go for the 12” (though I do like the tribal drums that take over towards the end of that version).

I’ve seen this record featured in some ‘Worst Chart-Toppers’ lists. Which is harsh. It’s kind of fun, and, for better or worse, catchy as Covid. File under: fine in small doses. Such is the way pop music moves though, coming hot on the heels of Blondie and Ian Dury, the disco riffs in this one already sound very last year.

In the UK at least, Anita Ward is a bona-fide one-hit wonder (in the US she managed one other chart hit – a #87). She faded alongside disco, and suffered a serious car crash in the ’80s. She is still performing to this day, though, and seems to have carved out a niche for herself performing ‘Ring My Bell’ at New Years Countdown events. Sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do…