409. ‘I Feel Love’, by Donna Summer

The Jacksons and Hot Chocolate were merely our disco’s warm-up acts, setting the tone and getting the audience limbered up. The headline act is ready now. Ms. Summer will take the stage…

I Feel Love, by Donna Summer (her 1st and only #1)

4 weeks, from 17th July – 14th August 1977

This is a shift forwards. They come along every few years, number ones that announce a new phase, a new sound, a real moment in popular music. ‘Rock Around the Clock’, ‘How Do You Do It’, Rock Your Baby’… Rarely, though, do the records in question sound as if they are from another galaxy altogether.

The first thing that hits you, after a short fade in, are the Moog synthesisers. They are harsh, drilling into your brain. We’ve had synths before, plenty of times, but not used like this. This feels like a slap in the face. Meanwhile, Donna Summer’s voice floats high above: ethereal, echoey… so unhuman that it could be as computerised as the music. It’s like her vocals were recorded years before, like this is already the remix.

It’s so good… There’s not much to the lyrics, really. Donna Summer is not the star of the show here – although her vocals are a huge part of the song’s appeal, and its legacy. I feel love, I feel love, I feel lo-o-ove… The stars are Giorgio Moroder’s synths: clanking, chirping, burping away. He layered them, he overdubbed them, he played them slightly out of sync with one another… They’re a world away from ‘Son of My Father’… You start to get a little dizzy if you play this for long enough at a high volume. I can’t imagine what it would have done to you in a sweaty disco in 1977. But you can picture it – the lights, the vibrating speakers, the amyl nitrate in the air…

It’s not a particularly nice song. It’s not one for any old time of day. But it is spectacular. And it’s not disco, at least not the kind of sparkly, flirty disco that’s been the dominant sound of the past few years. It’s dance music. EDM ground zero. (Though I’m not saying this invented dance music in one fell swoop. That’s the problem with only reviewing the chart-topping singles – it’s not an exact overview of popular music as a whole.) But what’s for sure is that it sounds not unlike something a big-name DJ could produce in 2021.

The best bit – sorry Donna – is when everything falls away but the metallic beat. We’re left with a thumping heartbeat, and what sounds like a mouse rattling around in your skirting boards. On ‘I Remember Yesterday’, the album this single is taken from, each track was designed to sound as if it were from a different era. ‘I Feel Love’ was the final track. The future.

For your pleasure, you can choose from the four minute single edit, the six minute album version, or the eight minute extended 12” mix. (We could stretch a case for this being the longest #1 single yet, but we’d be chancing it.) The #1 that this most reminds me of – not in terms of sound, but in terms of impact and weirdness – is another futuristic hit: ‘Telstar’. That, though, was an isolated one-off. Not many subsequent records have sounded like ‘Telstar’. Large swathes of the 1980s will sound like ‘I Feel Love’.

It is a shame that Donna Summer’s only UK #1 is this. Not that it’s not great, but she isn’t the main thing about it. If this was a more recent release, it’d be Giorgio Moroder ft. Donna Summer. The producer would be the star. In the US, this wasn’t a #1, but her other classics were. ‘Bad Girls’, ‘Hot Stuff’, ‘No More Tears (Enough Is Enough)’… I may have to do a Donna Top 10 very soon, as I’m not happy with her just having one appearance on this blog. She passed away in 2012, recognised as an influence on every disco act, every dance act, and every black woman who had hit the charts ever since.

360. ‘Gonna Make You a Star’, by David Essex

I’m not sure what I was expecting from this next #1, the pre-penultimate chart-topper of 1974… But it definitely wasn’t an outrageously catchy synth hook.

Gonna Make You a Star, by David Essex (his 1st of two #1s)

3 weeks, from 10th November – 1st December 1974

Seriously, this sounds really futuristic. Not since Chicory Tip have we had such an electronic song at the summit. It starts with a simple enough, acoustic riff, then wham. Add to this the fact that David Essex sings with such a thick, yes, Essex accent, which sounds to my ears quite, sort of… punky. It is 1974… but it’s not.

Oh is he more, Too much more, Than a pretty face…? It’s so strange the way he talks, It’s a disgrace… David Essex seems to be singing in the character of a critic, of himself as a singer, before answering them directly: Well I know I’m not super hip, And I’m liable to take a slip…

It’s a cynical take on the music industry, as cynical a song as we’ve had at #1. Essex is keen to let us know that he’s not just a pretty-boy teen idol, another Donny or David Cassidy. Except, going by the picture above, he really could have been. Which probably made him even more determined to go against type. We’re gonna make you, A sta-a-ah-ar, We’re gonna make you, A sta-a-ah-ar… The title line becomes a sort of mantra, you imagine a crowd of greedy execs crowding around, pawing at young, innocent David…

I really like this record. It is, as I said, not what I was expecting. It is a very hard song to place, and to sum up. Put it in this way: it sounds like they rounded up a group of blokes on their way home from Upton Park, asked them to have a pub-rock singalong, then at the last minute replaced the guitars with synths. Seriously, replace these synths with crunchy guitars and you’d have a glam rock anthem to rival anything T Rex or Slade came up with. And I particularly love the cheeky I don’t fink so… response to the ‘Is he more than a pretty face?’ question.

Maybe part of the problem that Essex had with the music industry was that he had been in bands for years, since the mid-sixties. He released the first of several unnoticed singles in 1965, and it wasn’t until he moved into musical theatre in the early seventies that he started to gain recognition. So to some he might have seemed a stage-school upstart, putting on the mockney accent for authenticity. While in reality he was a kid from Plaistow, the son of Irish travellers who had had played for West Ham, which in my book gives you every right to sing your cockney heart out.

None of which explains the synths, though… They really do come out of nowhere. Jeff Wayne produced this single – he of ‘War of the Worlds’ fame – so perhaps that has something to do with it. Essex will go on to star on ‘War of the Worlds’ but, as he has a second #1 coming up next year I’ll save the bio for then. Up next, a recap…

310. ‘Son of My Father’, by Chicory Tip

Time for something a little different. A record with a glam rock beat to it – as is becoming the norm – but with twiddly, electronic bits too. Think Joe Meek producing a Slade song, sung a sarfLahndan accent.

17f822b98c99613f28f2d9b578c7a1c5

Son of My Father, by Chicory Tip (their 1st and only #1)

3 weeks, from 13th February – 5th March 1972

The initial riff is simple and repetitive; but effective. It drills into your head and stays there. There’s a reason why this song lives on to this day in football chants. And at the end of each line there’s an electronic flourish. It sounds futuristic, but also old-fashioned in its simplicity. And then completely of its time thanks to the glam-stomp. An impossible record to place…

Adding another layer are the lyrics. This is no love-song, nor a party anthem. It’s a song about breaking with tradition. In the first verse, a mum is advising her son as he grows up: Be just like your dad lad, Follow in the same tradition, Never go astray and stay an honest loving son… (Though to be honest I’m relying on ‘LyricFind’ here, thanks to the thick accent and the mix, which pushes the synthesisers right to the front.)

Son of my father, Molded, I was folded, I was preform-packed… It’s an anthem of frustrated youth, of the need to make your own way in the world. It’s got a message… Which is overshadowed by the fact that this is the first completely electronic #1. It’s just, to my ears anyway, synthesisers and hand claps. (I know, there’s a bassist in the video below.) We’ve had ‘electronic’ chart-toppers before… ‘Runaway’ by Del Shannon, and The Tornadoes seminal ‘Telstar’, but none so completely sold to the sound. The solo here is a fifties piano-rag, but one beamed in from another planet.

CHICORY_TIP_SON+OF+MY+FATHER-419911

‘Son of My Father’ was based on a German hit from the year before, the melody of which was composed by none other than Giorgio Moroder. Moroder himself had released a version with English lyrics – listen to it here, it’s slightly faster and with a bit more ‘oomph’ to it, I think I like it better – but it did nothing. Then Chicory Tip got hold of the song and sold a million with it.

By the end of the song, the son has broken away from the pressures of his family and tradition. Son of my father, Changing rearranging into something new, Collecting and selecting independent views… But he’s still the son of his father. You can reject the past while still respecting it. I like it.

It’s a strange little song. I have to keep reminding myself that it really is quite ground-breaking. It’s easy to lose sight of that, and to get distracted by the fact that it’s also a catchy pop hit. Chicory Tip had been around since 1967, without much success. ‘Son of My Father’ was their first hit of any kind, and they scored two further Top 20s in its wake. They released one album before calling it a day in 1975, though they soon reformed in different versions that still tour.

So then. We have a huge #1 smash, combining two of the 1970s foremost sounds: glam and electronica. (Throw in a dash of disco and it would have been a hat-trick.) This is a big hit, and a big step forward.

176. ‘Have I the Right?’, by The Honeycombs

What’s that? What’s this? Why, it’s the sound of Merseybeat being fed through an electronic blender…

the_honeycombs_have_i_the_right_ep_spain_500_49412

Have I the Right?, by The Honeycombs (their 1st and only #1)

2 weeks, from 27th August – 10th September 1964

This is a Beat-pop song, with everything in the right place: verses, choruses, a solo. Lyrics about love. Have I the right to hold you, You know I’ve always told you, That we must never, ever part… Some whoah-oahs. But… Something doesn’t sound quite right. And by ‘not quite right’ I don’t mean it sounds ‘wrong’ – far from it. I mean it sounds… completely unique.

Take the drums for a start. They are deep and bouncy, and echoey. The drummer might well be in a completely different room from the rest of the band. In the chorus, as they pound out on every note, they sound like one of those huge Japanese drums, echoing across a misty forest.

Then there are the jabs of electronic keyboard that pierce the end of every line in the verses, like a ray-gun in a cheapo fifties ‘B’-movie. The guitar too is sharp, and clean as a knife; but again there’s something kooky about it, as if you were listening to pop music from a different but not too distant dimension. These two instruments combine on the solo and then, perhaps midway through, you realise what this song reminds you of: the one and only, the era-defining, blast from the future that was ‘Telstar’.

That particular #1 was produced by the legendarily maverick Joe Meek, and so was this. All three of his chart-toppers – this, ‘Telstar’ and John Leyton’s ‘Johnny Remember Me’ – were recorded in his apartment in Islington. All three are unique songs; but all contain recognisable characteristics. They’re drenched in overdubbing, they’re tweaked and tucked, they twang with reverb, and they are just all a little bit weird.

Here, for instance, is just one of the tales from the recording of ‘Have I the Right?’ Those drums I mentioned earlier? They were enhanced, not digitally, but by members of The Honeycombs stamping their feet on the stairs outside the studio. A tambourine was thumped against a microphone. And then, for the finishing touch, the tape was sped up. So much for the misty Japanese forest…

HONEYCOMBS-HAVE-I-THE

This record isn’t quite ‘Telstar’ – how could you recreate one of the most innovative and forward-gazing pop songs ever recorded? But it is still a brilliant #1. And in some ways, maybe, this is actually the more impressive feat. Here, Meek had to use his powers in the confines of a ‘regular’ mid-sixties pop song; while on ‘Telstar’ he was allowed to completely let loose… When we get to the chorus – Come right back, I just can’t bear it, I got some love and I need to share it… The lyrics look normal on paper – a little basic even. It’s the sound, and the propulsive, endearingly home-made feel of this song that makes it what it is.

Joe Meek, while never actually featuring in any of his chart-topping hits, was the main star of all three. From the gothic melodrama of ‘Johnny…’, to the space-age transmission of ‘Telstar’, to this piece of electronically blended Merseybeat. And, as is befitting one of pop music’s greatest innovators, he was an extremely eccentric character. His Wikipedia entry ranges from the bizarre (his belief that he could communicate with the dead, including through the meows of a cat), to the sad (he struggled through long-term drug addiction), to the downright tragic (he shot his landlady, and then himself, in 1967 after a depression brought on by the drugs, impending plagiarism lawsuits and the fear that he was about to be outed as gay.)

Under all this, The Honeycombs – understandably – have to play second fiddle. This was their debut hit and, although Meek produced several of their follow-ups, they struggled to match the success of ‘Have I the Right?’ Their second most successful single could only hit #12, and they broke up in 1967 after several line-up changes. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about them is that their drummer and founding member – Honey Lantree – was a woman.

Let us celebrate, then, this progressive sounding chart-topper, ‘Have I the Right?’, with a progressive bunch of people at the helm: a gay producer, a female-drummer, and a bunch of guys stamping on the stairs…

Follow along here:

141. ‘Telstar’, by The Tornados

To fully appreciate this next #1, I want you to go back and listen to the previous chart-topper, Elvis’s ‘She’s Not You’. Off you go. Done? Good. Because we need to make sure we know exactly where we are in October 1962. We’re in a bit of a post rock ‘n’ roll slump, with lots of middling pop and quirky novelties rather than an easily definable ‘Sound of ‘62’. And after that mediocre piece of Elvis-by-numbers, this song’s going to Blow. Your. Mind.

MAINtornados

Telstar, by The Tornados (their 1st and only #1)

5 weeks, from 4th October – 8th November 1962

The intro alone to ‘Telstar’ has enough innovative weirdness for there to have been papers written and conferences held on it. It’s an intro that sets a scene. I imagine a dust track at night in the Nebraskan desert. What sounds like a car coming to a stop. A weird humming and hissing. Ominous music that grows nearer and nearer. Pure B-movie soundtrack brilliance. It sounds bizarre listening to it from the comfort of 2019. It must have freaked people the hell out when they first heard it in 1962.

‘Telstar’ is an instrumental, one with a pretty simple and fairly repetitive melody. I’m no musician, but I’m guessing that, looking at the music written down on paper, it’s a tune that The Shadows – the pre-eminent instrumental group of the age – could have knocked out in their sleep. But, if you study ‘Telstar’ simply as notes on a page then you are missing everything else that makes this record amazing.

This is The Shadows recast as aliens. This is The Shadows playing as the Cantina band from Star Wars. There ain’t no guitar or drums here. Or, at least, there might be; but they’re way off in the background. This is an electronic record. A fully electronic record drenched in ethereal echo and lots of effects. This is what was hinted at in the Musitron on Del Shannon’s ‘Runaway’ and in the ghostly effects on ‘Johnny Remember Me’, come to full fruition.

It’s a record that tells a story. One of my major complaints whenever an instrumental number one comes along is that, without lyrics, they often struggle to be anything more than a melody looking for a home. There are exceptions to this rule, of course; and none bigger than ‘Telstar’. When the key-change comes and the backing singers join in with the tune you really can picture that car on the dust track in Nebraska, a girl clinging to her boyfriend’s arm, a huge light opening up in the sky above, ready to beam them away…

It’s also a record that is, perhaps more than any other #1 we’ve covered so far, a very specific product of its time. The Telstar Communications Satellite was a real satellite, launched four months before this disc hit the top spot. Barely a year before that, Yuri Gagarin had become the first man in orbit. The space-race had lift-off (pardon the pun) and this record sounds as if it comes from a distant galaxy compared to Elvis, Frank Ifield et al. It was also during ‘Telstar’s five weeks at the top that the world held its breath over the Cuban Missile Crisis, and I can’t think of a better song to put on the gramophone ahead of a nuclear Armageddon.

THE-TORNADOS-TELSTAR-b-w-JUNGLE

I mentioned ‘Johnny Remember Me’ and, as many will already know, both it and ‘Telstar’ were products of the bizarrely brilliant mind of producer Joe Meek. But whereas ‘Johnny…’ was the sound of Meek flexing his creative muscles; this disc is his masterpiece. He has one more chart-topper to come so we’ll save the main bio for then (though I could reserve a whole blog post, nay a full-on book, for an overview of his brilliant, troubled and ultimately tragic life.)

The Tornados, on the other hand, only ever had this moment at the top. I have to admit that in doing my research for this post I’ve fallen down something of a Tornados rabbit-hole… They were perhaps better known as the backing band to Billy Fury – an early British rock ‘n’ roller, a cooler version of Cliff, if you will, who never quite made it to the top of the charts. They were also a vehicle for Joe Meek’s experimental flights of fancy, and released a bunch of innovative, funny and outright bizarre records throughout the early to mid-1960s. Check out, for example, ‘Do You Come Here Often?’ – the B-side to their final ever single – in which two men full-on flirt over a loopy lounge-jazz melody. It was released in 1966, when ‘that sort of thing’ was still very much illegal…

However, nothing else they ever recorded came close to matching the success of ‘Telstar’. Not only was it a huge hit in the UK; it was the first ever US #1 by a British group – beating a certain foursome from Liverpool by just over a year. You can hear its influence in, say, prog rock, the electronic acts of the late ‘70s and ‘80s, and in the ‘Dr. Who’ theme. Muse scored a Top 10 hit in 2006 with ‘Knights of Cydonia’, a song which was, how to put this, lovingly influenced by ‘Telstar’. (Muse frontman, Matt Bellamy’s father was actually the guitarist in… wait for it… The Tornados! How ‘bout dat.)

Anyway… Glancing down my list of upcoming chart-toppers, I’m under no allusions that this has been anything other than a wonderfully freak occurrence, rather than a shift in the British musical landscape. But what a freak occurrence. That this song was the 141st UK #1 single should be celebrated long and loud. Press play once more and imagine that it’s you in that car on that dusty desert road. Beam me up…!