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…

437. ‘Sunday Girl’, by Blondie

Blondie’s second number one sees them sounding much more Blondie. Gone are the synths and disco drums from ‘Heart of Glass’; back come tight, bouncy guitars and a zipalong power pop riff.

Sunday Girl, by Blondie (their 2nd of six #1s)

3 weeks, from 20th May – 10th June 1979

I know a girl from a lonely street, Cold as ice cream but still as sweet… I’d say that this is their forgotten number one, sandwiched as it is between ‘Heart of Glass’ and their three 1980 chart-toppers. It wasn’t even a single in their homeland. Most big bands with a solid run of #1s have one (ABBA recently had ‘The Name of the Game’, there’s Slade ‘Take Me Back ‘Ome’, Rod has ‘You Wear It Well’…) But that’s not to say it’s their worst – ‘forgotten #1s’ rarely are.

Debbie Harry’s got some bad news for a girl called Sunday. She’s seen her guy with a different girl. Drama! Maybe he has a girl named after every day of the week… I’m not convinced of her sympathy as she sings Dry your eyes Sunday girl… Beyond that, the story doesn’t really hold together. Lyrically it feels a little throwaway, perhaps down to the fact that Chris Stein chucked it together while on tour, to cheer up Harry after her cat – Sunday Man – had run away.

Her voice isn’t as arresting as it was on ‘Heart of Glass’, but it’s still a wonderful thing. Light and breezy, fun and flirty – I love the Baby I would like to go out tonight… line – and just wait until you hear her sing it in French. ‘Sunday Girl’ works perfectly en Francais; you can just picture Harry flouncing around Montmartre in the video. Plus, this song taught me years ago that ‘depeche-toi’ means ‘hurry up’, so it’s actually quite educational.

Under the bubblegum fluff, it’s worth noting that this is our first guitar led, rock ‘n’ roll chart-topper for quite a while. It’s definitely New Wave – punk distilled into pop – and you could argue that tunes like this are what set a pop-punk template that lasts to this day (see current teenybopper du jour Olivia Rodrigo).

Towards the end things dissolve into handclaps and surf guitars, and it all sounds very early-sixties. Hurry up, hurry up and wait! growls Debbie, sounding like a feistier older sister of the Shangri-Las. This really is a great pop record, and it’s been nice to listen to it for the first time in a while today. Even better is to come for Blondie, though. They’ll be kicking off the 1980s in some style. Till then, then…

433. ‘Heart of Glass’, by Blondie

Picking up where Ian Dury and the Blockheads left off, Blondie enter the scene with another tight groove. Disco and rock are colliding here, in the early weeks of 1979, and the results are magnificent.

Heart of Glass, by Blondie (their 1st of six #1s)

4 weeks, from 28th January – 25th February 1979

When we come to monster hits like ‘Heart of Glass’, part of me is happy (it’s a great song) and part of me is frustrated (everything that needs to be said about it has been said before.) See also ‘Dancing Queen’, ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, ‘Get It On’… Sometimes this job’d be easier if every #1 was rank-rotten! But we will persevere. Nobody will be sad about giving this classic yet another spin…

The melody is great, for a start. The disco beat paired up with churning, writhing synths. Our 3rd ‘New Wave’ chart-topper finally sounds like what I think New Wave should sound like. When the organs come into the mix, and then the wall-of-sound drums, you’re in finger kissing perfection territory. The breathy, husky backing vocals – dum da dum, dadadada dum da – are wonderful too.

But the real star of the show – the star of this uber cool NYC gang – is the lead singer. Many are the tales of the sexual awakenings wrought upon Britain’s teenage boys by Debbie Harry in the late-seventies (and the sexual re-awakenings of their fathers, pretending not to watch the TV). Her vocals are stunning here. High-pitched, and ice cold: Once had a love, And it was a gas… Soon found out, Had a heart of glass…

She doesn’t bother singing in full sentences, and sprinkles fun Americanisms – mucho mistrust… and we coulda made it cruisin’… around the place. Best of all, she sings about heartbreak, about her glass-hearted lover, as if the loss is all his. She knows she’s hot, and that she won’t be single for long. Half of the time you can’t understand what she’s saying – in researching the lyrics for this post I realise that I’ve been singing the wrong lyrics for years. Riding high, I’m lost to the good life… is actually Riding high, On love’s true bluish light… for example.

I know I’ve moaned a lot about recent chart-toppers going on for too long, but when it comes to this record then the longer the better. Mainly because the 12” version has the drum-machine intro missing from the 7”, and the song’s sassiest line: Soon turned out, To be a pain in the ass… In actual fact, there are so many edits of this song that there’s a version for everyone: intro, no intro, third verse, no third verse, extended disco breakdown…

Originally, when Blondie first recorded the demos for this song, several years before it was a hit, they called it ‘The Disco Song’. And you can see why. They were already a chart force, with guitar driven post-punk hits like ‘Denis’ and ‘Hangin’ on the Telephone’ before this took them stratospheric (and caused an inevitable, ‘Disco Sucks’ backlash.) They’ll be the biggest band in the land for the next couple of years, with one of the strongest ever runs of #1 singles, starting right here. Don’t go anywhere!

432. ‘Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick’, by Ian Dury & The Blockheads

Officially into 1979, then. The end of the decade is in sight. Meanwhile, a funky groove slinks in…

Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick, by Ian Dury & The Blockheads (their 1st and only #1)

1 week, from 21st – 28th January 1979

We start mid-riff, and it feels like the doors to a club have just opened wide, filling the night with possibilities. And yes, this is definitely a song you can dance to. But it is so much more than that. For starters, we’re off on a trip around the world…

In the deserts of Sudan, And the gardens of Japan… we see Milan, then Yucatan. Every woman, Every man… Taking up where the Village People left off, there’s more innuendo ahoy: Hit me with your rhythm stick, Hit me slowly, Hit me quick! Is it about dancing? Is it about sex? Or is it about both? After about thirty seconds, does anybody care?

There’s a lot to love here. The whiplash sound effects after each Hit me! The frenzied piano that comes in midway through. The angry saxophone solo, which includes a note so jarring that it would ruin many a lesser song. But the main highlight is Ian Dury’s vocal performance. He sings, he croons in cockney, he squeals, he rolls certain sounds around in his mouth as if they were a fine brandy.

Contrast the way he caresses Borneo with the way he barks, in German: Das ist gut, Ich liebe dich! And the way every Me! is different. Mu-eeeh! Meeeeaaah! May! And my personal favourite, the one where he dog-whistles as if his bollocks are in a clamp. We’re four hundred and thirty two #1s in, and there can’t have been any with a lead singer so energetic, so enthusiastic, so borderline unhinged. Ian Dury had been a singer for many a year before forming The Blockheads in 1977. A bout of polio as a child had left him with a withered left arm and leg, but he was an enigmatic performer. In his very own words, from this very same single: It’s nice to be a lunatic!

It must be hard to write a song so strikingly inventive, and yet so dumbly catchy. It works on all levels. It is New Wave, I’d say, but sounds so different from our first New Wave chart-topper, ‘Rat Trap’, proving just how hard a genre this is to pin down. By the end, as the choppy guitars come in, and we clunk to an abrupt ending, as Dury howls his HIT ME!!s over the maelstrom, things have suddenly gotten very punk. We may never have had a real ‘punk’ #1, but the movement did at least pull aside the drain covers, allowing wonderful weirdos like Ian and his Blockheads to emerge.

They weren’t around for long, but The Blockheads did manage one further Top 10 single, ‘Reasons to Be Cheerful, Pt. 3’, on which Dury performs what must be one of the British chart’s first raps. He passed away in 2000, from cancer, but his legacy lives on. There’s ‘Spasticus Autisticus’, for example: a provocative riposte to what Dury saw as the patronising ‘International Year of Disabled Persons’, there’s ‘Sex and Drugs and Rock ‘n’ Roll’, and his acting. But above all, there’s this crazy little one-week wonder, perhaps the ultimate ‘January #1’. Go on then … Hit me, one more time! (No wait, wrong song…)

428. ‘Rat Trap’, by The Boomtown Rats

Well, here we go then. The last big musical movement of the 1970s claims its first number one single. Time to ride a new wave…

Rat Trap, by The Boomtown Rats (their 1st of two #1s)

2 weeks, from 12th – 26th November 1978

New Wave is a genre I’d struggle to describe. I know what it is, when it was, who its stars were… But it’s such a mish-mash of sounds that it might not actually be a genre at all. Is it punk? Ska? Synth-pop? A little smidgen of all those? For such an eclectic movement, this next record might be the perfect introduction.

‘Rat Trap’ is a mini rock-opera, telling the story of Billy, a dissatisfied youth: Billy don’t like it living here in this town, He says the traps have been sprung long before he was born… He’s bored and wants a fight, for want of something better to do. Musically there’s a lot going on here, as we swing from glam throwback to funky disco synths, and at times that busyness hides a very articulate piece of songwriting.

I like the line about ‘pus and grime oozing from scab-crusted sores’… And the momentum behind You’re young and good-looking and you’re acting kinda tough… Then there’s a trippy mid-section where Billy seems to be taking life advice from some traffic lights: Walk, Don’t walk, Talk, Don’t talk… as a tight, funky riff takes us downtown.

I think the main thing that defines New Wave is a playfulness, a willingness to not follow the rules of ‘rock’ that were laid down twenty-odd years before. ‘Rat Trap’ is certainly that. It’s a busy song – it reminds me of Wizzard in a way – but one that doesn’t get tired quickly. It’s high-grade pop: instantly catchy, but still layered and intelligent. It may not sound very punk – though the guitars are very spiky and sparse – but it is definitely ‘punk’ in attitude and subject matter.

Towards the end, Judy is introduced: a girl whose parents are arguing while Top of the Pops is on. She leaves, 50p in her pocket, and finds a drunk Billy in the Italian café. And if you expected a happy ending, two lovebirds running off to the bright lights of the big city… well, nope. It’s a rat trap, Judy… Billy announces… And we’ve been… CAUGHT! Cue a rocking outro. Rat trap, You’ve been caught in a…

I’m not sure how I know this song, but it’s one I’ve had in rotation for years. When people nowadays think of the Boomtown Rats, and lead-singer Bob Geldof in particular, they think of their second number one single, or Band Aid, and him generally being quite outspoken (“Give us yer fuckin’ money!”) But ‘Rat Trap’ deserves better than to be overshadowed. Coming after a long run of easy-listening numbers, soundtrack hits and Boney M, it sounds very fresh and daring. On Top of the Pops (is this the 1st chart-topper to knowingly reference the show in its lyrics?) Geldof ripped a picture of John Travolta in two as the band were announced as the nation’s new number one single. Plus, if nothing else, the Boomtown Rats were the first Irish band to score a UK #1 single. They won’t be the last…