465. ‘Start!’, by The Jam

The Jam make a quick return to top spot, with a very famous bass-line. One that you may have heard before…

Start!, by The Jam (their 2nd of four #1s)

1 week, 31st August – 7th September 1980

‘Start!’ is notoriously indebted to The Beatles’ ‘Taxman’ – there’s no avoiding the fact that the bass riff is pretty much a note for note copy – but while the former has a hash-haze to it, the latter is a squeaky-tight, short and sharp blast of punk-funk. That’s right. I’m inventing new genres as I go along…

It’s a song about a one-night stand… It’s not important for me to know your name… Or some kind of fleeting encounter… If we communicate for two minutes only it will be e-nough… At first glance it’s less of a war cry, compared to the band’s first chart-topper, but it’s actually just as cynical. Knowing that someone in this life, Loves with a passion called hate…

I’m really not sure if Paul Weller is grateful for their two-minute connection, or if he’s glad about never, ever seeing this person again. What I am sure about is that this is a great pop song: minimalist, with razor-sharp guitars and cool drum-fills. It’s as natty as The Jam’s mod-suits and shades combo in the video.

Speaking of the video, the single release of ‘Start!’ shaves fifteen seconds off the album version, trimming the gritty solo and losing the horns that play out over the closing refrain. For me the horns add to the funk here, placing the record firmly in the early-eighties, so if you were choosing between the versions I’d go album every time.

Without wanting to disrespect what I think is a great record, I think a sharp-blasting, one-week #1 like this needs only a sharp blast of a blog post on it. ‘Start!’ probably gets lost among The Jam’s better-known hits, ‘Going Underground’ before it and ‘That’s Entertainment’ after (which charted at #21 by selling only imported copies – a sign of the band’s popularity in 1980). It was also the only one of their four chart-toppers not to enter at the top. But it’s good one, and if this post has just turned you onto the song’s quality, then that will be a start!

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…

454. ‘Going Underground’ / ‘The Dreams of Children’, by The Jam

Well, isn’t this quite the shot of adrenaline! The line between new-wave and punk becomes very blurred as The Jam score their first number one single…

Going Underground / The Dreams of Children, by The Jam (their 1st of four #1s) 

3 weeks, 16th March – 6th April 1980

The guitars are tight, and fast. Lead-singer Paul Weller spits the opening lines out with venom: Some people might say my life is in a rut! But I’m quite happy with what I’ve got! It’s a record that grabs you by the lapels of your smart, modish suit and doesn’t let you go. These angry young men are not happy with modern life, with their leaders’ lies and atomic crimes, and are off underground.

The lyrics are not always easy to make out – delivered as if Weller just has to get them off his chest before their three minutes are up – but one line stands out: The public wants what the public gets, But I don’t get what this society wants… I’m going underground…! And then there’s the ‘braying sheep’ on his TV screen. They’re words that ring just as true today – you could probably apply them to any point since WWII, to be fair – but after an economically difficult seventies, and less than a year into Thatcher’s government, dissent is growing…

‘Going Underground’ really does sound very raw, and very punk. It could be a hit from 1977, and is much more primitive when compared to new-wave’s two other big guitar bands, Blondie and The Police. This is perhaps The Jam’s last moment as an ‘underground’, if you will, band. This hits number one, and their sound expands and progresses. Only in the break, before the final chorus, does it sound a little more of its time, drippy and echoey, but only for a second before the guitars chop right back in.

‘Going Underground’ was actually only listed as the double-‘A’ due to a printing error. ‘The Dreams of Children’ was intended to be the lead, and it does sound much more of the moment. It starts with a cool false-beginning, guitars and vocals played in reverse, and has a great, chiming riff. But, I’d say it lacks the urgency of the flip-side. I hope that whoever buggered things up at the printing plant wasn’t punished too harshly…

If you were hoping for a more positive take on modern life here… well, nope. Paul Weller is having sweet dreams – the innocent dreams of a child – but wakes sweating and paranoid to this modern nightmare… I was alone and no-one was there… Before long, the song has turned into a sort of horror movie theme, voiced by a sinister dream-catcher.

Something’s gonna crack on your dreams tonight, You will crack on your dreams tonight… he sings, as the twiddly backwards effects return and things get genuinely creepy. Sorry kids, your dreams are just that: dreams. Real-life will grind you down. I mean, it’s not your run-of-the-mill #1 single material, but everything can’t be all sweetness and light. Neither of these songs sounds like a chart-topper, but it’s great that they got there.

And they got there in some style. This was the first record to enter at #1 since Slade did it with ‘Merry Xmas Everybody’ over six years ago. Elvis, Cliff, The Beatles and, er, Gary Glitter were the only other acts to have achieved this feat before 1980. It pretty much announces The Jam as one of, if not the, biggest band in the country (or at least the band with the most devoted fanbase, who ran out to buy the song as soon as it was released…)

However, can I just add before I go that it is a shame that The Jam’s previous single – their first Top 10 hit – wasn’t the big #1 debut. As great as this record I’ve reviewed today is, ‘The Eton Rifles’ stands as a brilliant commentary on the British class system: angry, and funny, and another one that still rings true today. We just don’t learn, do we?

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!

449. ‘Brass in Pocket’, by The Pretenders

Here we are then. The nineteen eighties. Synths, post-punk, Thatcher, Reagan, the 2nd British Invasion, MTV, SAW, Yuppies, Hip-Hop, ‘Thriller’, Madonna… The decade in which I entered this world… A decade that, I have to admit, I used to rank way below the sixties and seventies in terms of its music. But not any longer. I’m ready for it!

Brass in Pocket, by The Pretenders (their 1st and only #1)

2 weeks, 13th – 27th January 1980

And what a cool way to start the decade. I got brass, In pocket, I got bottle, I am gonna use it… This one’s all about the hustle. Picture Chrissie Hynde, stepping off the bus in London town, and picturing just how she’s going to make it BIG. Gonna make you, Make you, Make you notice!

She’ll use her arms, her legs, her style and her sidestep, and in the space of three minutes the capital will have fallen. I’m special, So special, Gotta have some of your attention… This could come across as wildly obnoxious, but it doesn’t, somehow. Give it to me! Probably helps that it’s a woman singing these lines. Since punk, women can be bad-ass singers of rock ‘n’ roll bands. These days people’d call her a Boss Bitch.

The obvious comparison to make – a female lead singer in an otherwise male new-wave band – is with Blondie. Hynde sounds nothing like Debbie Harry, but her voice still drips with the same kind of attitude. And the music is more British post-punk – Police-like chiming guitars and a bouncing, reggae-ish beat – than Blondie’s spiky, New York sound.

In the second verse, she’s a little more explicit about how she may be getting her ‘brass’. Got new skank, So reet… I thought it was a drug reference, but apparently it’s about moving your body. You know, like dancing, or… There has been some discussion over whether the song is actually about The Pretenders’ first ever concert, or about the singer’s first sexual experience with a new partner. Either way, Hynde sums it up: “The tradition of ‘Brass in Pocket’ is that you’re cocky, and sure of yourself.”

This was The Pretenders breakthrough hit from their debut album – they had only been a band for just over a year. They would never return to the top of the charts (though a cover of one of their songs will…) but they managed impressive longevity: a handful of Top 10 hits spread out over fifteen years. Chrissie Hynde, meanwhile, will have another #1 under her own steam (sort of).

And so, with this short, sharp little record – that manages to be both clever and catchy – the eighties have kicked off. In previous decades, the first number one singles have been perfectly pleasant pieces of pop (Michael Holliday’s ‘Starry Eyed’ in 1960, and Edison Lighthouse’s ‘Love Grows (Where My Rosemary Goes)’ in 1970) with little indication of where popular music is heading at that moment, but ‘Brass in Pocket’ actually sounds like a statement of intent…

447. ‘Walking on the Moon’, by The Police

Back in my post on Blondie’s ‘Sunday Girl’, I pushed the idea of a forgotten number one. A band racks up a few chart-toppers; one inevitably doesn’t remain in our collective memories quite as much as the others. Here then, is The Police’s…

Walking on the Moon, by The Police (their 2nd of five #1s)

1 week, from 2nd – 9th December 1979

It’s got a slow build up, this one, with a bass riff and sparse, chiming guitars. It’s got even more of a reggae vibe than the band’s first #1, ‘Message in a Bottle, and more than a hint of jazz in the tickly drums. I like it, at first. Sting’s walking back from his girlfriend’s house: Walking back from your house, Walking on the moon… The idea is that when you’re in the first throws of love, you feel light, as if you could defy gravity.

Which is nice. But the concept, and the stripped-back music, gets stretched very thin over this five minute record. I keep waiting for the punk guitars to kick in, as they did to save ‘Message in a Bottle’, but they never do. The liveliest it gets is the middle-eight: So, they say… I’m wishing my days away… The pace quickens, and a little urgency enters Sting’s voice, for a moment or two. But, on the whole, I’m filing this one under ‘dull’.

I admitted in my first Police post that they were a band I struggled with, and this record is not doing much to change my mind. As I listen, I have one eye on the ‘Meh’ award in my upcoming recap… But. I think this is a bit of a false start to the Police’s chart-topping career. 1979 might have been their most prolific year, in terms of #1s; however, there is better to come from their eighties hits. I just know it.

The last minute is one giant fade out, with Sting chanting Keep it up… for far longer than he needs to. You begin to wish they hadn’t kept it up, or had at least considered a radio-edit. (One does exist, but pretty much every version around nowadays is the full-length album track.) ‘Walking on the Moon’ would sound pleasant at a beach bar around sunset, but you wonder how this managed to become a best-selling single. Of course, that might be an indicator of how big The Police were at this stage of their career – their second album – and that they were well on their way to becoming one of the biggest bands in the world…

443. ‘Message in a Bottle’, by The Police

The New Wave revolution takes another swerve. The Police score their first number one with some reggae-rock. (Not Ska, though. It is, apparently, very important not to call this Ska.)

Message in a Bottle, by The Police (their 1st of five #1s)

3 weeks, from 23rd September – 14th October 1979

Vocally, we also have another interesting fusion: Geordie-Jamaican. It’s Sting, of course, really laying it on thick in the verses. Just a castaway, On an island lost at sea, Oh… (The rhyming of ‘sea, oh’ with ‘me, oh’ and I can’t help but hear the ‘Banana Boat Song’) Can I just admit right here that The Police are a band I… struggle with? They leave me a bit cold. Admittedly I wasn’t brought up on them, have never gone beyond the big hits – even this is a song I hadn’t heard too often before – and I wonder if my problem is with Sting more than his band… (See also: U2)

I shall use this blog, and their five chart-toppers, to try and improve my opinion of them. And it doesn’t take me long to find something to love here: the driving, punky guitars in the bridge – I’ll send an SOS to the world… – are great, as is Sting’s bass. But it stands right out for me, because the rest of the song is quite plodding in places. The band are marooned on a desert island, and send out messages in bottles, hoping for a connection…

Come verse three and lo! Walked out this morning, Don’t believe what I saw, Hundred billion bottles washed up on the shore… It seems they weren’t alone in being alone. We’re all waiting for a message in a bottle. It’s kinda deep… (Though for a hundred billion bottles to have washed up means every human on the planet – going by 1979 population levels – had to have sent around twenty-three bottles each…)

Anyway, this is yet another patch of fallout from the punk explosion. Mix it in with other acts who have appeared in recent months: The Boomtown Rats, Ian Dury, Gary Numan, and of course Blondie. Actually, Blondie and The Police draw a good few comparisons: both post-punk, both red-hot for a few years at the turn of the decade, both with five #1s (at least initially, in Blondie’s case) For me, though, it’s Blondie all the way.

But, these views are mine and mine alone. ‘Message in a Bottle’ is objectively a good song, well-written rock with an effective hook. I am looking forward to getting to grips with more Police in the coming months, and hopefully enjoying it, as we’ll be hearing a lot more from the former Gordon Sumner and his bandmates. Bring it on.

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…

380. ‘Space Oddity’, by David Bowie

Ground control to Major Tom… Ground control to Major Tom… Take your protein pills and put your helmet on…

Space Oddity, by David Bowie (his 1st of five #1s)

2 weeks, from 2nd – 16th November 1975

Have there been stranger opening lyrics to a #1 single…? A fade-in, which hasn’t featured very often either, then a very familiar voice. We countdown, to lift-off. Check ignition, And may God’s love be with you… Enter a legend.

I don’t think I’ve mentioned any artist in this blog, without actually featuring one of their songs, more often than David Bowie. He loomed over all the glam hits, the Lord above, while never deigning to do anything as vulgar as top the pop charts. And then, when he finally does, we’ve missed out on Ziggy and Aladdin Sane, and it’s a re-release of his breakthrough hit that does it.

This is an awesome song, and I mean that in the most literal sense of the word: awesome. A sweeping epic about a man heading into space, alone, inspired by Kubrick’s ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’, with at least three very separate styles contained in its five minute runtime. One moment it sounds like late-sixties Beatles, the next it sounds like classic Burt Bacharach, while the Mellotron sounds like a visitation from the ghost of Joe Meek.

‘Space Oddity’ was originally released in 1969, to coincide with the moon landing. It made #5, and meant that for a few years David Bowie – David Bowie – was remembered as a one-hit wonder, a novelty… Until he released ‘Starman’, and heavy-petted Mick Ronson on Top of the Pops. Then the rest was history.

Bowie being Bowie, I’m tempted to wonder if this record is simply about a bloke in space. Is it a commentary on fame: And the papers want to know whose shirts you wear…? Or drugs: I’m floating in a most peculiar way…? (I love the way he pronounces a-pe-cu-li-ar, in his best Anthony Newley.) Or is it simply an epic tragedy: Ground control to Major Tom, Your circuit’s dead, There’s something wrong… as Tom orbits away to his doom?

It’s been great to really sit down and listen to this song. I knew it, of course, in that way everyone knows incredibly famous songs, but it’s not part of my regular rotation. In fact, I have to admit, not much Bowie is in my regular rotation. It is permanently item one on my musical to-do list: appreciate David Bowie more, you philistine! I like him, I love what he stood for and represented, but some of his music, like Major Tom himself, floats way above my head…

In the real world, while a re-release of his first hit made #1 – the second 1960s disc to hit the top in this weirdest of years – Bowie was leaving glam behind, and becoming a huge star in the US with soul numbers like ‘Fame’ and ‘Golden Years’. Then came the cocaine, before the mega-successful early ‘80s. We won’t meet him atop the charts again until then. Which means his only #1 from the entirety of the 1970s is this. David Bowie, along with Prince, is perhaps the biggest artist with the worst representation from his chart-topping hits. Anyway, all that is still to come. For now, let’s float off into the milky way, in our tin cans. Altogether now: Can you hear me Major Tom…? Can you hear me Major Tom…?

366. ‘Make Me Smile (Come Up and See Me)’, by Steve Harley & Cockney Rebel

Cool intro alert! I do like to keep track of our intros, and the ascending bass riff on this one launches it straight into the… let’s see… the Top 5 of the ‘cool intros to chart-topping singles’ list.

Make Me Smile (Come Up and See Me), by Steve Harley & Cockney Rebel (their 1st and only #1)

2 weeks, from 16th February – 2nd March 1975

I’ve known this song for years, and the one thing that stands out in my mind, even though I haven’t listened to it in a while, is Steve Harley’s voice. The sneer he puts into words like smiiiillle, and tryyyyyy, as well as his strong accent, seems very punk to my ears. It’s proto-Paul Weller, or Billy Bragg.

You’ve done it all, You’ve broken every code, Pulled the rebel to the floor… And well might he sneer. The lyrics at first sound cryptic, but when you learn that Harley wrote them as a sarcastic comeback to the band he had just split from they become crystal. You spoiled the game, No matter what you say, For only metal, What a bore… The delivery on the ‘metal’ line is genuinely one of the best vocal moments in any #1 single we’ve met, and I’ve always loved the cocky pauses between the chorus and the verses.

Come up and see me, Make me smile… Or do what you want, Running wild… As Harley tells it, the other members of Cockney Rebel left him in the lurch. So he reformed the band, with his name front and centre, and scored a huge chart-topping single. Not a bad bit of revenge. But, it doesn’t sound like a nasty song. On the whole, it’s breezy and uplifting, although apparently earlier demos were slower, and darker.

‘Make Me Smile’ is a hard record to place. It’s eclectic – aside from the acoustic chords and the bass, there’s also a gospel choir for the backing vocals, and a Spanish guitar for the solo. Wiki lists Cockney Rebel as ‘glam’ but, while they certainly looked glam – lots of flamboyant silk suits on display in promo pics – their sound is a little more experimental. They had hit the Top 10 twice in 1974, with ‘Judy Teen’ and ‘Mr Soft’, before the split, but it’s clear why this record went all the way to the top. It’s incredibly catchy and much more commercial. Simple!

It was also a ‘long car journeys as a child’ staple for me (I wonder how many songs that is now?) I can’t say it was always my favourite – I definitely would have skipped it for ABBA or Wizzard, had I been sitting in the front – but I can appreciate it now for what it is. It’s a grown up song, after all, and one that’s ingrained itself in British culture. Apparently there have been 120 cover versions, from acts including Duran Duran, Erasure and Suzi Quatro, which isn’t bad for a record born out of frustration and anger. The power, as one D. Vader might put it, of the dark side