491. ‘Don’t You Want Me’, by The Human League

1981 has had its fair share of iconic chart-topping moments: Bucks Fizz’s skirt-ripping moves, The Specials’ call to arms, Soft Cell’s re-imagining of a soul classic, Mercury and Bowie going toe-to-toe… And it ends with perhaps its most iconic tune.

Don’t You Want Me, by The Human League (their 1st and only #1)

5 weeks, 6th December 1981 – 10th January 1982

For this is one of the most recognisable riffs ever, I’d say. Up there with ‘Satisfaction’ and ‘You Really Got Me’ for chart-topping riffs. It’s dramatic and ominous, yet catchy and danceable. It’s a synth riff here, but play it on a piano, a guitar, a bloody harp, and people would know it was the intro to ‘Don’t You Want Me’.

The opening lyrics are equally iconic: You were working as a waitress in a cocktail bar… a male voice intones… When I met you… It’s sung by an overbearing – ok, creepy – bloke. A Svengali figure. He found this girl, made her a star, and now she’s outgrown him. Don’t forget it was me who put you where you are now, And I can put you back down too…

In the second verse, the starlet has her say. Yes, she was working in a cocktail bar… That much is true… She tells him politely that it’s time for her to make it on her own. The male ‘character’ is so well-formed, such a nasty sounding piece of work, that you wish his female counterpart had a little more bite. Who is she? Did she really just use him? Or maybe her niceness is the ultimate insult…?

Aside from the riff, the next best bits are the lines that accelerate up to the chorus: You better change it back or we will both be sorry! This is a high-quality pop song, well worthy of being the year’s biggest-seller and a Christmas number one. But – there’s always a ‘but’ – I’m not sure if there isn’t a hint of ‘fur coat and no knickers’ about it. ‘Don’t You Want Me’ has a great riff and great hook, but on repeated listen it goes from all-time classic to simply great pop. Two years ago, Gary Numan was doing things with a synth that genuinely stood out. Now, in late-1981, synths alone are not enough to wow.

Phil Oakey, The Human League’s founder, didn’t want this released as a single, and has said in subsequent interviews that he sees the music video as a big factor in its success. And you can see why: it’s moody, noirish… dare I say, once more for luck, iconic? It’s certainly slicker and more expensive than many of the homemade looking MVs from the last couple of years, and it looks forward to a New Romantic future in the make-up, earrings and fringes. ‘Rolling Stone’ has claimed ‘Don’t You Want Me’ as the starting point for the 2nd British Invasion in the US (it hit #1 on Billboard six months after topping the charts here).

The Human League had only the one UK chart-topper, but were scoring hits well into the nineties. They still tour to this day. After I’m done writing this post, I’m going to listen to the album that birthed this hit, ‘Dare!’ to see what all the fuss us about. Maybe I’m being harsh in saying that this record lacks much substance beyond its killer riff. It’s still a great tune, but when songs come along with as much baggage and reputation as this one then I can’t help expecting great great things…

487. ‘It’s My Party’, by Dave Stewart with Barbara Gaskin

More evidence that 1981 was a leap-forward for the charts. The year in which the decade truly began. Because this, this next record, it is… truly…

It’s My Party, by Dave Stewart with Barbara Gaskin (their 1st and only #1s)

4 weeks, 11th October – 8th November 1981

something? It’s a leap-forward, for certain, because we’ve heard nothing like this before at the top of the charts. Whether we ever needed to hear anything like this at the top of the charts is another question. At its most basic level, this is a cover of the Lesley Gore hit, a #9 (and US #1) in 1963. Except the original has been deconstructed, mashed, blended, twisted and fricasseed until what is being served up is almost unrecognisable.

I’m enjoying it, at first. The intro is the best bit: woozy drums, weird far-eastern sound effects, and the Cry if I want to… line chanted like a mantra. But as it goes on, the song veers in one direction then another, then another. I count three complete changes of tone and style. No, make that four. I’m starting to feel dizzy. Can I just hand over my next WTAF award now?

Is this good? Or is it terrible? I can’t think of many records that straddle the line so completely as this. There are flashes – mainly when the charm of the original manages to shine through – where it’s really fun. But there are other times when it feels like this production is being controlled by a five-year-old banging away at the settings on their toy keyboard. Perhaps you could look at this as haute-couture music: just like nobody actually wears the clothes that come down the runway in Milan; probably nobody would listen to this by choice anymore. But the sounds and techniques used here would filter on down through the decade…

Or maybe that’s generous. Acts like The Buggles, and Soft Cell (who literally just took their version of a sixties gem to the top) have shown that you can sound ridiculously modern – emphasis on the ridiculous – and still make a great pop song. This one gets very lost along the way: there’s a moment, after the wedding bell sound effects and a theatrical gasp, when the final chorus clicks, and you can see that Dave Stewart and Barbara Gaskin had it in them to make this a great pop record. But, hey ho, it doesn’t last. Give me the sassy, swinging original over this any day. (Actually, I’ve just realised the difference between this and Soft Cell. Soft Cell lovingly re-crafted a classic; this sounds, at times, like art school students taking the piss – see the annoying way Gaskin squeals at the end of every ‘you’, for example.)

The Dave Stewart involved in this is not, as I immediately thought, the Dave Stewart of Eurythmics fame. This DS was a keyboard player and composer for various prog-rock bands throughout the seventies, before he hooked up with his former backing singer, Barbara Gaskin. Soon afterwards, they scored this huge hit, by far their biggest. They still work with one another, and have released seven albums together. And I do wonder if they chose ‘It’s My Party’ because it is such a typically old-fashioned, bubblegum hit, and the re-imagining is therefore so shocking. A few years later they tried to repeat the trick with a version of ‘The Locomotion’ that only made #70.

I still don’t really know what to make of this one, even after repeat listening. It is certainly something… Is it avant-garde, or just dumb? Impressive, or unlistenable? I can’t help thinking of that quote from ‘Jurassic Park’: they were so preoccupied with whether they could, they never stopped to think if they should…

For the first time in a while… A #1 that is missing from Spotify…

485. ‘Tainted Love’, by Soft Cell

Compare and contrast, if you will, this next #1 with our last. ‘Tainted Love’ has the same instruments, is in the same basic genre as ‘Japanese Boy’, but how different it sounds…

Tainted Love, by Soft Cell (their 1st and only #1)

2 weeks, 30th August – 13th September 1981

It’s a collection of synthesised beats and sound effects, intricate but minimalist, and it sounds thrillingly futuristic. One of the sounds – the poink poinks, you know the high-pitched ones that contrast with the lower dun duns, the ones the song fades ends on – always make me think of a life-support machine. In actual fact, they sound nothing like a life-support machine (though Intensive Care wards would be a much more fun place if they did). It’s strange how music can put images into your head.

Sometimes I feel, I’ve got to, Run away… It’s a tale of a toxic relationship, about a lover who needs the tears and pain of their partner, and the singer’s escape from their tainted love… Don’t touch me please, I can’t stand the way you tease… It’s a cover, of course, of a 1964 release by Gloria Jones that failed to chart. A cover of a cover, even, as Jones had re-recorded it in 1976, with the help of her boyfriend Marc Bolan, though it still failed to chart.

And it’s a great cover version. Soft Cell take the original, strip down all the sixties froo-froo and do it up in an early-eighties style. It’s like seeing an old building renovated in a much more modern fashion, but with the walls all in same place, the support beams still running across the ceiling. They take the song in a completely new direction (a direction semi-influenced by Jones’s re-recording), though to most listeners at the time it would have been brand new. It’s sexy, it’s abrasive, it’s very, very now.

By the end, the singer is having second thoughts about giving up on this relationship. Touch me baby, Tainted love… he urges. It might be wrong, he thinks, but it feels so right. Meanwhile the music video is very much in the ‘anything goes’ spirit of the early-MTV age: there are cricketers, Greek Gods, Regency-dressed women, suspicious looking children…

Actually, what I thought was the video – the one I’ve seen several times before, in which a man writhes on a bed and Marc Almond sings among the stars – is actually the video for the 1991 re-recording, which seems to have now usurped the original. One thing I do notice, as great as this strange, sexy record is, Almond’s voice lets it down slightly. It strains at times, and is slightly flat at others. He sounds much better a decade later, on the re-recording.

Soft Cell were another early-eighties act that burned brightly but briefly. They had a handful of other Top 10s before Almond and his sidekick Dave Ball went their separate ways. They won’t re-appear on this countdown (though Almond will, eventually) And, carrying on the fine tradition of covering and re-recording the life out of ‘Tainted Love’, Marilyn Manson scored his (their?) biggest UK chart hit when his/their Industrial-metal version reached #5 in 2002. I can’t think of many songs that I love in three different versions; but ‘Tainted Love’ is one.

Before I go, and seeing as this is my last post for 2021, I’d just like to wish all my readers, followers, likers and commenters a very Happy New Year! See you all in 2022, as we push on through the eighties!

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.

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

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

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

1 week, from 14th – 21st October 1979

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

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

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

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

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

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

442. ‘Cars’, by Gary Numan

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

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

1 week, from 16th – 23rd September 1979

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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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.

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‘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.