448. ‘Another Brick in the Wall Pt. II’, by Pink Floyd

Here we are then. The final #1 of the seventies, or the first of the eighties. Or both! And, well, at least we’re not ending with a whimper…

Another Brick in the Wall Pt II, by Pink Floyd (their 1st and only #1)

5 weeks, from 9th December 1979 – 13th January 1980

‘Another Brick in the Wall Pt II’ was of course, the Xmas #1 for 1979, and a couple of Christmas ‘must haves’ are present: a novelty element, and a children’s choir (of sorts)… It also acts as a bit of a ‘Best Of the Late-Seventies’, as musically it’s a blend of MOR rock, and disco. (The riff really puts me in mind of The Eagles’ ‘One of These Nights’… there are purists out there who’ll hate that comparison!)

And then there’s the band that put all this together, Pink Floyd: one of decade’s biggest, most successful, influential acts… scoring their first British hit since 1967. Like Led Zep, singles were beneath Pink Floyd, and they had to undergo some real persuasion to make this record. The disco beat, the children, releasing it as a single: all brainwaves from the song’s producer, Bob Ezrin.

We don’t need no education, We don’t need no thought control… Roger Waters wrote this record as a satire of his experiences at boarding school. The video features a giant cartoon teacher feeding hundreds of children into a meat grinder. The point is then literally ‘hammered’ home when the teacher turns into an, um, hammer… No dark sarcasm in the classroom…!

The best bit is when the kids take over for the second verse. Their Hey! Teacher! Leave us kids alone! is genuinely spine-tingling. We then exit with a long solo – again, I’m getting Eagles… – and you’re left kind of scratching your head. OK. That was… something. My uncertainty maybe comes from the fact that this is Pt II of III. The album version starts abruptly with a train screeching, and ends weirdly, with a telephone ringing, after some voice actors have yelled trippy lines like: How can have any pudding, If you don’t eat your meat…???

For those to potentially be the last words spoken on the final #1 of the 1970s is bizarre. I say ‘potentially’, for I don’t know if they were actually on the single edit. If you listen to all three ‘parts’ of ‘Another Brick In the Wall’ it does start to make a little more sense – Parts I and III are variations on the same riff – but, just to make things even more complicated, the tracks don’t even run concurrently on the album…

Another thing that the 168th #1 of the seventies brings back to the top, just in time, is prog rock. Or, at least, a prog band. It was one of the biggest genres of the decade, albums wise, but we haven’t seen much if it in the singles, for obvious reasons (like prog bands not bothering to release them!) You could make the case for 10cc’s ‘I’m Not in Love’, and ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ being prog #1s, but I’m struggling to think of others. Way, way back in my post on The Moody Blues’ ‘Go Now!’ I argued my ‘Problems with Prog’, and the same applies to Pink Floyd. As is pretty much the law, I bought a copy of ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ aged seventeen, and listened to it… twice, maybe. I just didn’t get it; and didn’t have much inclination to try to get it.

Not that this isn’t an interesting song, though, and a fitting end to a rich and diverse year of chart-toppers. I’ve said it before: 1979 is the ‘best’ year of the ‘70s in terms of chart-topper quality (though 1973 would probably be my favourite year of the decade, just for all the glam stompers…) And it was a controversial Xmas #1, too. The London Education Authority labelled it a ‘scandalous’ slander on the teaching profession. Apparently the new Prime Minister, one Margaret Thatcher, wasn’t too keen on it either… Which is fitting, as quite a few of the biggest acts from this new and upcoming decade had plenty to say about her…

Listen to (almost) every #1 single from the 1970s here:

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…

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…?

321. ‘Mouldy Old Dough’, by Lieutenant Pigeon

I’ve heard of this song before – for better or for worse – but don’t think I’d ever heard it, in full, until now. And boy, is it strange…

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Mouldy Old Dough, by Lieutenant Pigeon (their 1st and only #1)

4 weeks, from 8th October – 5th November 1972

It starts with a military drum beat, and for a second I’m worried that we’re getting 1972’s second pipes ‘n’ drums #1 single. Then we get a flute, and I’m picturing an orange march. Then we get a boozy, woozy, synthesised rock ‘n’ roll piano, and we’re in a crowded German beerhall.

Two immediate points of reference jump out at me. There’s Chicory Tip’s similarly stomping ‘Son of My Father’ from a few months back. And then there’s the work of Joe Meek a decade ago: The Tornados, and ‘Have I the Right?’ and so on. There’s a lot of similarities there, but they don’t fully explain what the hell is going on here.

‘Mouldy Old Dough’ is an instrumental, save for the title being growled by what sounds like a very old man with no teeth. Apparently the line Dirty old man… is also buried in there, deep within the soupy mix, but I can’t make it out. It is so rough and ready, this record. It sounds like an old demo that was burnt, buried in a shallow grave, then dug up years later, released and sent to the top of the charts…

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Have you ever eaten durian? It’s a huge spiky fruit, really popular in south-east Asia, with a smell somewhere between sweaty socks and rotten onions. Apparently, though, if you can get past the stench the actual flesh of the fruit is quite nice. I’ve never been able to get past the stink but feel that ‘Mouldy Old Dough’ might be the durian fruit of #1 singles. Get past your initial doubts and reservations, your initial what the hell?, and by the third or fourth listen you start to find something charming buried deep within its relentless, plodding, churning beat.

The backstory of Lieutenant Pigeon only adds to the record’s charm. They were an experimental band from Coventry, fronted by Rob Woodward, and featuring his mum, Hilda, on piano. She’s basically the star of this record, as it’s her melancholy piano line that holds it all together. ‘Mouldy Old Dough’ was recorded in their living room (what I mistook for synths is just poor sound insulation!) When asked what it was all about, Rob admitted that he had no idea… Despite being the composer. Honest. I like it. The follow-up to this, ‘Desperate Dan’, made #17 and after that the charts were a Pigeon-free zone… The Woodwards are still the only mother and son combo to ever top the UK singles chart.

And isn’t that nice? Lieutenant Pigeon still record and release music to this day, mainly online, while Hilda died twenty years back. She was fifty-eight when this record hit the top of the charts, and she’s still in the Top 10 oldest people to feature on a number one single. By the end the marching beat has transformed into a glam-rock stomp as we fade out. As weird as this record sounds – and it does sounds pretty darn weird – it still somehow fits in with the styles of the time…

Never Had a #1 Hit… The Doors

I’m taking a quick break from the usual rundown to give a mention to the bands and artists that we will never meet at the top of the UK singles chart. If you were following along, wondering when (*insert name of your favourite act*) were going to finally appear in this countdown, then I got some bad news for you…

(I’ll do this in chronological order, with acts whom we would have met by now – i.e. in the fifties, sixties and early seventies.)

Up today… One of the sixties’ most iconic bands…

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I dunno about The Doors, really. Do I like them? Were they as good, or as bad, as people say? They’re a band that seem to inspire extreme reactions, based around whether you think Jim Morrison was a lizard-leather-sex-God, or a bit of an arse.

Plus, most of the Doors’ songs that I enjoy never made it to the British charts – ‘Touch Me’, ‘Love Her Madly, ‘Love Me Two Times’, ‘People Are Strange’… In fact, for such an iconic, influential band, they only ever had four charting singles in the UK Top 75! Which shocked me, I have to admit. Here they are:

‘Light My Fire’, #7 in 1967

A US #1, and their only Top 10 hit in Britain. A sixties classic, and a pretty simple song really. It’s either about sex, or drugs, or both, with a snazzy Louis XIV riff to start and end. I like that the backdrop to this performance in the video is lots and lots of doors hanging on the wall. (Meanwhile, ‘Light My Fire’ will top the charts, much later, and in a very different version.)

‘Hello, I Love You’, #15 in 1967

Another US #1 – part of the reason why I chose The Doors for this feature is the difference between their success in the two countries – with a cool riff and some trippy sound-effects. There was only three years between ‘Oh, Pretty Woman’ and this and, while they cover the same topic, the difference in sound is quite something.

‘Riders on the Storm’, #22 in 1971

A seven-minute-long bit of self-indulgence, if you ask me… But the band’s 3rd highest charting single in the UK!

‘Break On Through (To the Other Side)’, #64 when re-released in 1991

This is more like it. Quiet, then loud – loud, then quiet. Morrison sounds raw and ferocious, before the drugs took their toll. And that was it. Four hits (if you can call reaching #64 in the charts, twenty years later, a ‘hit’.) They’re a band that managed to go a long way – and become pretty legendary – without much of a back catalogue. Style and looks over substance?

One more chart-topper-less artist, coming up tomorrow…. And we’re going back a little further to find him. A rock ‘n’ roll idol, dead now, (and he didn’t die recently, if that’s who you’re thinking of…)

255. ‘Fire’, by The Crazy World of Arthur Brown

1968 strikes again! Our next #1 kicks off with a yell straight from the sulphurous pits. I am the God of hell-fire, And I bring you…! Well, they do say that rock ‘n’ roll is the devil’s music…

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Fire, by The Crazy World of Arthur Brown (their 1st and only #1)

1 week, from 14th – 21st August 1968

Fire, I’ll take you to burn…! As an opening statement, it’s pretty aggressive…. Fire, I’ll take you to learn…! Demonic horns and a Satanic organ, playing as if it were possessed, join in with the fun as the ground splits in two below our feet and we tumble into the roasting furnace. I’ll see you burn…

This is, and I mean this in the best possible way, a crazy record. The Crazy World of Arthur Brown certainly live up to their name. That it hit the top of the singles chart for a week in the summer of ’68 is something to be marvelled at, and enjoyed. It’s harsh, it’s angry… It’s an anthem dedicated to nihilism and arson: You fought hard, And you saved and earned, But all of it’s going to burn… Arthur Brown then launches into an Ohhh Noooo and a series of yelps and squawks that Axl Rose in his prime would have been proud of. Wiki lists ‘Fire’ as ‘psychedelic’, which it is… But that’s only telling a tiny part of the story. This is hair metal and shock-rock, Alice Cooper, Ozzy Osbourne and Iron Maiden, before any of that was a thing. Fire… To destroy all you’ve done…

The second verse slows down, like the soundtrack to an eerie, cheapo haunted mansion ride, before the grinding organ and horns snap back in and we head relentlessly towards the finish. We get crazed laughter, shrieks, the horns blasting ever stronger, before the winds of hell blow us on our way. You’re gonna burn…burn burn burn burnburnburn…! Apparently Brown used to perform this track while wearing a helmet that had been doused in fuel and set alight (see the pic above). Because of course he did…

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They also say that the devil has the best tunes, but I’m not so sure about that being the case here. This is an amazing record, an experience; but not one that I’m desperate to repeat many more times. Perhaps it’s a truly awesome record… ‘Awesome’ in the literal sense of inspiring fear, as in the ‘awesome’ power of an atomic bomb.

I am convinced that there must have been some controversy around this disc hitting the top of the charts – that at least Mary Whitehouse and the Archbishop of Canterbury got their knickers in a twist over it – but can’t find much evidence online. It shows how far society had come in the decade or so since Elvis was getting cropped at the waist, I guess.

The Crazy World of Arthur Brown, largely Brown and organist Vincent Crane, are one-hit wonders in the truest sense. None of their other singles – either before or after – managed to chart in the UK. But their legacy lives on –  all the metal stars I listed above count them as an influence, while ‘Fire’ has been sampled by The Prodigy and Marilyn Manson. Arthur Brown still performs, aged seventy-seven, and still sets his helmet on fire…

I feel like I’ve been writing this at the end of nearly every recent post, but it bears repeating… What else has 1968 got in store for us? Surely it can’t get any weirder than this…?

234. ‘A Whiter Shade of Pale’, by Procol Harum

And so we reach the summer of 1967, which you might also have heard of as The Summer of Love. Flower power. Tie-dye. Making love not war. (I dunno, really – I’m just hitting all the clichés.) If you can remember it, man, you weren’t really there…

Despite Britain being thousands of miles away from the pot-haze of Haight-Ashbury, somehow the singles chart managed to reflect, in real time, this cultural movement, with three heavyweight #1s between early June and early September. The first being this next one…

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A Whiter Shade of Pale, by Procol Harum (their 1st and only #1)

6 weeks, from 8th June – 19th July 1967

It’s a record that strides confidently into the room, with an unmistakeable organ riff and Spector-esque drums. (Apparently it owes a debt to J. S. Bach, this intro… I wouldn’t know much about that. I would simply describe it as ‘soaring.’) It’s rock, it’s progressive, it’s classical, it’s psychedelic… It’s everything and nothing. It just is.

It reminds me a little of The Moody Blues’ ‘Go Now!’, from a couple of years back, in its proggy, jazzy take on pop music. But not really. ‘A Whiter Shade of Pale’ is unique. It doesn’t really sound like the logical next step in the evolution of pop; more like a record that has arrived, nobody knows how or from where, to dominate until normal service resumes.

As much as it stands out musically, what has made this such a famous record are the lyrics. Just what on earth are they about? We skipped the light fandango, Turned cartwheels cross the floor… The first verse, at a push, can be seen as someone drunk at a party. The room was humming harder, As the waiter brought a tray… But surely a song this renowned can’t just be about getting pissed at a party, turning white, and chucking up?

Well, no. We’ve not got to the Chaucer-referencing chorus yet. Or the second verse… I wandered through my playing cards, And would not let her be, One of sixteen vestal virgins… Uh-huh… ‘Vestal virgins’ being a select group of young women locked away inside a temple in ancient Rome to tend an eternal flame (my undergrad degree in History not going to waste there…) I mean, I don’t want this post to go on forever and so I’ll spare you my interpretation of the lyrics. They are, what they are: pretty far out, man.

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Plus, boring lyrical analyses will just take away from the fact that this is a superb song – up there with earlier bizarro classics like ‘Telstar’ and ‘Good Vibrations’. A song that’s clever without being alienating, and weird without being off-putting. It’s a long song, at over four minutes, and oddly structured to boot – the two verses and two choruses sandwiched between long stretches of organ instrumental. I love the sweep of the organ every time the chorus begins, and the fact that it fades just seconds after the final, triumphant chorus begins. I love that there is a third and fourth verse that the band only play live. I love that they are called Procol Harum, after the ‘cat fancy’ name for their producer’s Burmese cat (I don’t even understand the reason behind the band’s name; let alone the name itself!)

Above all, I love that we’ve finally broken the cheesy, easy-listening slump that 1967 has brought to the charts. For the next three chart-toppers, at least, we’re back innovating, pushing the envelope of pop. Procol Harum, for all the brilliance of their debut hit, wouldn’t bother the singles charts too much afterwards. Their follow-up, ‘Homburg’, did hit #6 though, and is actually the first Harum song I ever heard, as it featured on the sixties compilation tape in my parents’ car that I must have mentioned twenty times by now. I guess the compilers couldn’t afford ‘A Whiter Shade of Pale’.

Anyway, I’m sure you are in no doubt about the brilliance of this record, but just to make sure… It was announced in 2004 that it was the record with the most radio/TV plays of the previous seventy years. It has sold more than ten million copies worldwide. Over one thousand cover-versions have been recorded… No doubt about it – ‘A Whiter Shade of Pale’ is pop royalty.

My hand-made Spotify playlist: