417. ‘Uptown Top Ranking’, by Althea & Donna

Into 1978 we go then… 1977 was a bit of a slog – a year that started off slowly, with an interminable easy-listening winter and spring, but that had a fair few classics buried in the middle. You just had to be patient. What will the penultimate year of the decade serve up?

Uptown Top Ranking, by Althea & Donna (their 1st and only #1)

1 week, from 29th January – 5th February 1978

First of all, there’s a bit of reggae to beat the January blues! It’s not a verse-bridge-chorus kind of song, this one. It’s a riff, a vibe, a mood that chugs along. Beach bar music. Which isn’t to say it’s bland, or best suited for the background. Not at all. The bass-line is superbly monotonous. The vocals are at once hypnotic and yet indecipherable.

It’s not rap; but it’s not singing, not really. And the lyrics are delivered in an uncompromisingly thick Jamaican patois, that to your average British listener must have sounded like a completely foreign language. See me in me heels an’ ting, Dem check, Say we hip an’ ting… (I googled the lyrics…) Love is all I bring, Inna me khaki suit an’ ting… Althea and Donna are dressed to impress, dancing, cruising around in their ‘Benz’. Basically, they are The Shit. They are ‘uptown top ranking’, a Jamaican phrase for flaunting it in the city.

The one bit I could get without any help was the refrain: Na pop no style, I strictly roots… The girls haven’t forgotten where they came from, no matter how much they are blinging. They’re still Jennies from the Block (as Jennifer Lopez would tell us many years later…) But forget J-Lo, this record sounds incredibly modern, extremely fresh. I’m getting… Rihanna. She should come back with a cover of this…

Althea Forrest and Donna Reid were seventeen and eighteen respectively when they released this, their only hit. And they really do sound like too-cool-for-school teenagers as they deliver their lines, which were apparently ad-libbed. In my head, I can see them painting their nails, applying lipstick, and looking impossibly young and stylish. Listening to this record – this forty-three year old disc – is making me feel very middle-aged.

It’s not just the singers, in fact. Everything about this song feels and sounds modern. There’re the ad-libs, for a start. And then there’s the fact that it’s based around a sample from a 1967 song, ‘I’m Still in Love’. And the fact that ‘Uptown Top Ranking’ is an answer record, in response to a similarly braggadocio-filled track called ‘Three Piece Suit’, by Trinity, which also used the same rhythm. We are just in 1978, honest. I haven’t skipped thirty years by accident!

Althea and Donna didn’t bother with anything as basic as having a follow-up hit. They are one-hit wonders, baby. But what a hit, waking up the sleepy post-Christmas charts with a glimpse of downtown Kingston. I think it’s putting the word ‘Uptown’ in the title that does it. I can think of three ‘Uptown’ #1s, including this one, and they’re all great pop songs.

https://open.spotify.com/embed/playlist/3sSYyPEUCTyMjMlN55z8SX

373. ‘Tears on My Pillow’, by Johnny Nash

Our next #1 single feels a little bit misleading. It has a title that hints at other things… Is it a cover of the fifties classic ‘Tears on My Pillow’? Does Johnny Nash sound anything like Johnny Cash?

Tears on My Pillow, by Johnny Nash (his 1st and only #1)

1 week, from 6th – 13th July 1975

Its starts off very lush and soulful, with the swirling strings that have soundtracked many of the past year’s disco hits, but just when you think you know where this record is heading it changes tack and seamlessly slips into a reggae beat.

I remember, All the good times, That we had before… He loves a girl, she doesn’t love him back like she once did. Baby, Every night I wake up cryin’… Tears on my pillow… (and then, in a nice nod to the ‘50s song of the same name) Pain in my heart…

I like this one. I’d never heard it before, but I like it. I can even cope with the spoken word section (not something I often say) because it’s not too overwrought. I’ll always remember that day, You promised to love me… Meanwhile the reggae beat in the background is just too darn perky to make you feel sad.

Is ‘reggae-soul’ a thing? If it is, then that is what is happening right here. I especially like it when the horns come in at the end, playing an almost music hall refrain. They are – and there is simply no other word for it – funky. The more I listen to this song the more I’m enjoying it.

One thing’s for sure, 1975 is turning into one hell of an eclectic year. We can now add reggae to Philly soul, hard rock, a country classic, a novelty from a sitcom, and some spoken word sexiness from a TV detective… Those were the days! Johnny Nash was a Texan – one of the first non-Jamaicans to have reggae hits – and best remembered for the classic ‘I Can See Clearly Now’, which had reached #5, and #1 in the US, in 1972. That is a stone-cold classic, but I’m kind of glad that ‘Tears on My Pillow’ was his only chart-topper here. It really is a fun little tune.

It was the last of six UK Top 10s for Nash, who passed away just a few months ago, aged eighty. And for those of you left disappointed that this wasn’t a cover of Little Anthony & The Imperials’ doo-wop classic, just hang on fifteen years until an Australian legend takes to the top. Those of you disappointed that this is Johnny Nash not Cash… He never charted higher than #4.

359. ‘Everything I Own’, by Ken Boothe

In my last post, I dubbed the autumn of 1974 as the ‘Disco-Fall’, so glistening and shimmering has it been, dripping with the season’s hot new sound. But there have been detours, brief intermissions in the programme – think John Denver’s ‘Annie’s Song’, for example. And now this.

Everything I Own, by Ken Boothe (his 1st and only #1)

3 weeks, from 20th October – 10th November 1974

Though ‘Everything I Own’ isn’t so much a detour from the disco-soul sounds of recent #1s; it is more like being dumped in the middle of the Amazon with no compass. It is a slice of incredibly laid-back reggae, with incredibly earnest vocals and a tempo that never gets above crawling pace. Reggae is a strange genre, in chart terms, as it never seems to come or go. We’ve had reggae chart-toppers since the late sixties, and they’ll crop up every now and then until the present day. See also: country and western.

You sheltered me from harm, Kept me warm… You gave my life to me, Set me free… It’s a love song, a thank you letter to a loved one. It’s so sincere and sweet that it might even be a hymn. God himself might be the loved one… He’s not, it becomes clear, but the comparison is valid. This is record is just very… nice.

I would give anything I own, Give up my life, My heart, My home… (It’s odd, but the phrase ‘everything I own’ never features, it’s always ‘anything…) It’s nice, it’s very calming, almost like an audible massage, but I’m waiting for the hook… Still waiting… And then it fades. Oh well. It would work very well playing in the background, in a beach bar, in Thailand.

‘Everything I Own’ was originally a soft-rock hit for Bread, in 1972, before being adapted here into soft-reggae. It has been covered by everyone with a penchant for AOR, from Rod Stewart to Boyzone. It will also appear again at the top of the charts, in 1987, but I won’t give the game away on that just yet.

I have to say that, despite not loving this record, it is the version that I’m enjoying the most. Ken Boothe has a fine voice, and he enunciates every syllable in a manner your nan would approve of. His chart career mirrors perfectly that of our previous chart-toppers, Sweet Sensation. A #1, followed by a #11, and then done. I like that symmetry. Boothe made a sum total of $0 from this hit, as his record label went bust before they paid him. He is still alive, has been awarded the Jamaican Order of Distinction, and released his most recent album in 2012.

Listen to (almost) every #1 with this playlist:

299. ‘Double Barrel’, by Dave and Ansil Collins

An interesting sub-genre: #1 singles with the best intros. ‘That’ll Be the Day’, ‘You Really Got Me’, ‘I Heard it Through the Grapevine’… All blown out the water by this next chart-topper!

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Double Barrel, by Dave & Ansil Collins (their 1st and only #1)

2 weeks, from 25th April – 9th May 1971

I am the magnificent! a voice announces, W O O O… I have no idea what he’s talking about, but he does it with such conviction, with such exuberant certainty, that you know this is going to be a good song. It literally echoes off the walls.

This record is really hard to classify. It’s reggae? Or is it ska? Is it an instrumental? Is it rap?? (It can’t be rap, because according to every musical history ever rap didn’t exist in 1971!) Is he a DJ? A dancehall MC? These are things I didn’t think I’d need to be asking until at least 1989…

There’s a catchy piano hook, a bass-line that answers along to each riff, and an organ that swells every so often before fading. All the while a voice, either Dave or Ansil’s, or both maybe, calls on us to Work it! And to Hit me one more time! He sounds like James Brown leading an aerobics class, shouting stuff like Good God! Too much! I like it! Soul poppin’!

This is a cool, cool number one single. It’s uncompromisingly funky, straight from the streets of Kingston. The obvious comparison to make is to Desmond Dekker’s ‘Israelites’ from exactly two years ago – the first true reggae single to make #1 in the UK. The organs hint at the piano instrumentals of the ‘50s, especially Dave and Ansil’s fellow West Indian, Winifred Atwell. But the rest of the record looks way, way into the future, to the late eighties, early nineties, when huge hit records could just be snippets of a rhythm with some vocals chanted over the beat.

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Dave, and Ansell Collins were a Jamaican duo (Dave is actually Dave Barker… If ever a band name needed an Oxford comma it is theirs). It is his vocals you hear throughout the song. There’s some confusion over whether his partner was ‘Ansell, ‘Ansel’ or ‘Ansil’. It was the latter which was printed on the British copies of ‘Double Barrel’. The duo had one further hit single when ‘Monkey Spanner’ reached #7 later in the year.

So, just as we were working up a glam rock groove, this comes along like a short, sharp blast from another planet. The early 1970s throws us another curveball. Not that I’m complaining. If only all the curveballs could be as funky, catchy and as goddamn cool as this record!

Listen to all our previous number ones with this playlist.

269. ‘Israelites’, by Desmond Dekker & The Aces

Every so often in this countdown – and quite frequently during the fertile late-sixties – we come across a record that sounds like a huge leap forward. This next chart-topper is one such song…

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Israelites, by Desmond Dekker & The Aces (their 1st and only #1)

1 week, from 16th – 23rd April 1969

It starts with a chant: Get up in the morning, Slaving for bread… accompanied by some doo-wop harmonising. So that every mouth can be fed… Pretty bleak stuff. Oh-poor, me Israelites… Then in comes a jaunty, bouncy riff. There’s a big contrast here between the lyrics and the tune, but it works.

I have to admit – channelling my dear departed Gran here – that I have no idea what Desmond Dekker is singing for most of this disc. His Jamaican accent is uncompromising. You can picture fathers up and down the land frowning at Top of the Pops. ‘What is this nonsense? It seems that his wife and kids have left him, he has no money, and he may have to turn to a life of crime: I don’t want to end up like Bonnie and Clyde…

The title refers to Rastafarianism, which has its roots in Israel. (I never thought that I’d be getting into theology, but here goes…) Rastafarians were 2nd class citizens in a predominantly Christian Jamaica, and often had to struggle to make ends meet. But, like all the best songs-with-a-message, ‘Israelites’ doesn’t forget to be catchy. It works as well on a basic level, one that you can shake your body to, as it does as a social commentary.

We’ve had a couple of reggae false-starts over the past year. The Equals were reggae-tinted rock. Marmalade aped The Beatles aping reggae – the ‘Desmond with a barrow in the market place’ from ‘Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da’ was based on Desmond Dekker – but it is now official. Reggae has arrived at the top of the British charts. I have to admit that it’s a genre I struggle to enjoy – even more so when it comes to ska and two-tone – but I love this record. It’s raw, it’s cool and authentic.

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Coming as it does after Marvin Gaye, ‘Israelites’ also marks the first time we’ve had consecutive chart-toppers by black artists (I’m deliberately not counting the time in 1959 when The Platters replaced Shirley Bassey). While we’ve had plenty of black artists hit the top-spot, ‘Israelites’ feels different. It was written, produced and performed by black Jamaicans. It doesn’t sound like it’s had its edges softened to sell more. It is – I’ve used this word already but it fits very well here – uncompromising in its sound.

Desmond Dekker and The Aces enjoyed a few more chart hits in the UK. ‘You Can Get It If You Really Want’ – a much more accessible record than ‘Israelites’ – made #2 the following year. He was also one of the first people to spot and promote a young Jamaican by the name of Bob Marley. He passed away in London, in 2006.

Just as interesting – if less important in the grand scheme of things – is the fact that this record marks eleven chart-toppers in a row that have been their artists one and only #1. (Do you get what I mean? I couldn’t think of a better way to phrase that sentence.) From Mary Hopkin through to The Aces, we’ve had half a year of artists enjoying their one and only moment at the top. Which I think must be – or be close to being – a record. Bringing that run to an emphatic end, however, are The Beatles, an act that have enjoyed a few more number one singles than most…

263. ‘Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da’, by The Marmalade

Our first #1 of 1969, which hit the top just as the New Year’s bells rang out. Throughout January it was locked in a bit of a jig with our last chart-topper, ‘Lily the Pink’. Both records replaced one another at the summit. And when you listen to this disc, that makes sense…

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Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da, by The Marmalade (their 1st and only #1)

1 week, from 1st – 8th January / 2 weeks, from 15th – 29th January 1969 (3 weeks total)

For ‘Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da’ is cut from the same silly, music-hall cloth as Lily and her medicinal compounds. This is another strange tale – the tale of Desmond, Molly and their market stall. Desmond says to Molly girl I like your face, And Molly says this as she takes him by the hand…

You probably know what comes next, because this is a song by a very famous band, from a very famous album. Ob-la-di, Ob-la-da, Life goes on, Wo-oah… La-la how the life goes on… Yep, it’s the fifth cover of a Beatles’ song to make #1 in the UK, following on from ‘Bad to Me’, ‘A World Without Love’, ‘Michelle’, and hitting the top only a couple of months after the last one, ‘With a Little Help From My Friends’. Add these to the Beatles’ fifteen #1s, and that’s a cool twenty chart-toppers for Misters Lennon and McCartney. (Listen to the original here – John apparently hated it.)

Out of the previous covers, I’d say that this has most in common with The Overlanders’ ‘Michelle’. It’s a perfectly functional copy of the original, one that adds nothing new into the mix. It still bounces along on the same ska-ish beat, Desmond still buys Molly a diamond ring, Molly still does her pretty face and sings with her band in the evening – they still have the drag verse at the end – but it’s basically karaoke.

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In fact, the bits I like about the original ‘Ob-La-Di…’ are the cut from this. They don’t shout ‘Bra!’ in the chorus, instead changing it to ‘woah’. There’s no ‘ha ha ha ha’ between the bridge and the third verse, no plinky-plonky piano. Plus, at the end they change So if you want some fun… to So if you want some jam… Because, I’m guessing, they were called The Marmalade. So actually, they’ve taken an average song, and made it worse. Oh well.

And it’s sung in a very strange, slightly Indian, slightly Scouse, slightly Fagin from ‘Oliver!’ accent. The Marmalade were from Glasgow, but that ain’t no Glaswegian… It’s tough, I know, to assess a song like this on its own merits, having been familiar with The Beatles’ version since I was about eight. It’s fine, but coming so soon after Cocker’s outrageous interpretation of ‘With a Little Help…’ it falls pretty flat. The Marmalade would, to be fair, have several other, self-written Top 10 hits through to the early seventies. They were no one-hit wonders.

P.S. Before we finish, it’s worth noting the reggae-ish undertones in this disc. Last year we had the first ska-tinted number one from The Equals, while the ‘Desmond’ in this song was apparently inspired by Desmond Dekker, one of the first reggae stars to make it big in the UK. The ‘Bra!’ in the original was apparently meant to be more like ‘Brah!’ – ‘brother’ or ‘friend’ in West Indian patois. Nowadays Paul McCartney would probably get savaged for such cultural appropriation… What it all means is that reggae has arrived at the top of the charts, just in time to add yet another layer to an amazingly diverse musical decade.

P.P.S. This is the 19th disc to have two (or more) separate runs at the top since the charts began sixteen years ago. Amazingly, it will be the last disc to have a return to number one (without being re-released) until 1993!

252. ‘Baby Come Back’, by The Equals

I can remember very precisely the moment that I first heard this next number one, playing on our car radio when I was about fourteen. I remember it so specifically because when the DJ announced that he was about to play The Equals, my mum thought he had said The Eagles.

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Baby Come Back, by The Equals (their 1st and only #1)

3 weeks, from 3rd – 24th July 1968

She then spent a very confused three minutes wondering why she had never heard this Eagles’ song before, and how she had managed to miss out on the band’s short-lived reggae phase. My mum can be quite dramatic when confused. Anyway… This is definitely not The Eagles. It’s The Equals, with ‘Baby Come Back.’ And we do welcome reggae to the top of the British singles charts!

Except, is this really reggae? Or is it rock? Reggae-rock? Or am I just assuming it’s some kind of reggae because it’s sung with a Jamaican-sounding accent? The opening, cut-glass riff is very rock, while the bouncy rhythm is – to my ears at least – quite reggae. Ding-ding-dinding-dung-ding! It’s a great intro, and it’s probably the best thing about the entire record.

Not that it’s a bad song other than that. It’s simple enough – a song in which a man implores a woman to not leave him. Come back baby don’t you leave me, Baby baby please don’t go… he sings. Come back, I said baby come back… goes the chorus. It all sounds very heartfelt until you listen carefully to the second verse, and notice that he admits to flirting around behind her back.

The Equals were a London-based band cut from the same interracial cloth as The Foundations. They had two white and three black members, the foremost of which was one Eddy Grant! I knew of him as an eighties star – he’ll feature again on the countdown in around fourteen years – but had no idea he was around in the sixties, until today. And he doesn’t have a Jamaican accent, as I suggested above – he’s originally from Guyana, in South America.

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This is a fun record, one that bounces along and stays buried in your head for a while after. I like the asides as the band build towards each chorus – Hey! (Alright!) – and the free-styling towards the end, especially when one member shouts out Rude Boy! It might have stood out as even more new and refreshing, had the chart-toppers of 1968 not already been so bloody strange…

The Equals had been releasing singles since 1966 – ‘Baby Come Back’ had been released once already and done nothing. They would have a couple more Top 10s following this; but ‘Baby Come Back’ was their biggest hit by far. Not only will we meet Eddy Grant again in this countdown, but this song will top the charts again in a very different-sounding nineties version. Much more for another day, then.

I really struggled to find the original recording of this disc. YouTube has it – I think – and you can listen to it below. Spotify has every re-recording under the sun but not, as far as I’m aware, the original. Which is of no concern to anyone but me, as it has spoiled the perfection of my UK #1s Blog Playlist…

Follow my playlist below, with (almost) all the original versions of the 252 #1s encountered so far: