This next #1 sounds like a blast from the past… Originally released in 1970, the theme from ‘M*A*S*H’ took a full decade to make the top of the charts…
Theme from M*A*S*H (Suicide is Painless), by The Mash (their 1st and only #1)
3 weeks, 25th May – 15th June 1980
The why and wherefore of that we’ll get to in a bit. To the song first, though. It’s a simple enough, folksy ditty. It’s got a very late-sixties, post-Woodstock comedown feel to it. It’s also very melancholy. A song titled ‘Suicide Is Painless’ was always going to be a bit depressing…
Through early morning fog I see, Visions of the things to be, The pains that are withheld for me, I realise and I can see… The main thrust being that life is shit, and that suicide is always an option. By verse three, the ‘sword of time’ is piercing our skin, and everyone’s feeling thoroughly miserable. The singers, meanwhile, harmonise on the choruses like creepy Beach Boys.
I’m going to stick my neck out and say that this would never have been a hit had it not been associated with a huge film and TV franchise. It was the theme to the movie first, in 1970, and then the spin-off TV series between 1972 and ’83. I guess demand had built up over the years thanks to the show’s success, and this re-release sent it crashing up to the top of the charts.
The record is credited to ‘The Mash’, but in reality it was performed by some uncredited session singers who probably never received a belated dollar for their huge hit. One person who did make some money from it was Michael Altman, the fourteen-year-old son of the film’s director Robert. His dad allegedly requested ‘the stupidest lyric ever’, and the kid obliged in five minutes flat.
I think ‘stupidest lyric ever’ is a bit harsh, but the second you realise it was written by a moody teenager then lines like: The game of life is hard to play, I’m gonna lose it anyway… suddenly make complete sense. I think the dumbest bit of the whole song is actually the chorus: Suicide is painless, It brings on many changes… One of pop music’s great understatements there.
I wonder if there was any controversy at the time, either in 1970 or ten years later, around the theme of suicide in a #1 single, or TV theme, and the idea that it might be ‘painless’? It’d raise a few eyebrows nowadays for sure. Either way, it’s a song that’s been covered many a time. In the UK, the most notable has been The Manic Street Preachers’ version, which returned the tune to the Top 10 in 1992. It’s quite a haunting take on the song, too, given the Manics’ guitarist Richey Edwards’ still-unexplained disappearance a couple of years later.
Only kidding. To tell the truth, I always thought that ‘We Are the Champions’ was released as a double-‘A’ with ‘We Will Rock You’. It wasn’t, at least not in the UK, where ‘We Will Rock You’ was the B-side. But if ever there was a song that didn’t need any support, that could stand alone as a statement, ’twas this one.
It’s not that ‘We Are the Champions’ invented the rock opera. But before this, rock operas were spread out over entire albums. Queen managed to get the form down to three perfect minutes. The choruses: rock, soaring rock. The verses: pure Freddie Mercury theatre. The way he toys with the line You brought me fame and fortune and everything that goes with it…! is sublime. It doesn’t come close to scanning with the song’s rhythm, but he makes it work.
This record has been slightly lost to sports events now, blasted out after every cup final and league title because, well, no time for losers. But in its original form it feels like more of a positivity anthem. We are the champions, all of us, and we’ve all had to struggle to get there. Mercury himself, of course, was no stranger to not having things easy, growing up non-white and non-heterosexual in a time not much inclined to accept either of those things. And yet he took the sand kicked in his face and came through…
It’s easy to be cynical, and I can be cynical about most things in life… But I refuse to be cynical about this song. It’s irrepressible. It’s been confirmed, in a 2011 study by actual scientists, to be the catchiest song ever written. And in the recent ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ biopic, Queen’s performance of this song at Live Aid drew the film to a close and sent me out the cinema thinking, briefly, that I had just seen the best movie ever (I hadn’t, but there are few films that wouldn’t be improved by having a performance of ‘We Are the Champions’ tacked on the end…)
We have finally reached the end of the seventies! And so, to celebrate, here are the ten records that I – in my recaps – named as the very best of the decade. Note that this is not me retrospectively ranking my faves. I am beholden to decisions made several months, if not a year ago, for better or worse, and it has left us with an interesting rundown….
I spent the 1960s respectfully choosing the classics: The Beatles, The Stones, The Beach Boys, ‘Whiter Shade of Pale’ and ‘I Heard It Through the Grapevine’. You can check out my sixties Top 10 here (and while you’re at it why not have a glance at my ’50s Top 10 too.) For the seventies, though, it seems I went a little rogue… Those of you expecting to find ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, ‘I’m Not In Love’, or ‘Wuthering Heights’ will have to look elsewhere…
I am limiting myself to one song per artist, regardless of how I ranked them at the time. Interestingly the only act that would have had two songs qualify was… Wizzard! As it is they are left with just one. And I was surprised that one of my favourite bands of the decade, Slade, came nowhere near to placing any songs in this list. Anyway, here we go:
‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’, by Simon & Garfunkel – #1 for 3 weeks in March/April 1970
This first song was runner-up in my late-sixties/early-seventies recap. It is a classic, a sweeping hymn, a modern standard. Every time I think I’m bored of it, that it is a little too proper to be a pop song – it is one of the few songs recorded post-1955 that my gran liked, for example – then I listen to it… The Oh, If you need a friend… line gives me shivers, every time. But I was feeling rebellious, and I awarded first place to…
‘Baby Jump’, by Mungo Jerry – #1 for 2 weeks in February/March 1971
One of the grimiest, seediest, downright strangest number ones of the decade, if not of all time. The complete opposite to Mungo Jerry’s huge feel-good hit from the year before. In my original post, I described ‘In the Summertime’ as the soundtrack to a sunny afternoon’s BBQ, while ‘Baby Jump’ was the soundtrack as the party still raged on past 4am. Bodies strewn across the lawn, couples humping in the bushes, someone throwing up under a tree… That kind of thing.
‘Metal Guru’, by T. Rex – #1 for 4 weeks in May/June 1972
‘Best song’ in my 2nd seventies recap. T. Rex’s final UK #1 is everything that made them great condensed and distilled into a perfect pop song: power chords, beefy drums, nonsensical lyrics… From the opening woah-oh-oh-oh it is an extended, non-stop chorus of a tune, and a true classic.
‘See My Baby Jive’, by Wizzard – #1 for 4 weeks in May/June 1973
The height of ridiculous, over-indulgent, glam… And all the better for it. It is a truth universally acknowledged that any song beginning with anti-aircraft guns will be great. Roy Wood threw the kitchen sink at this, Wizzard’s first of two #1s, and everything stuck. I named it runner-up to ‘Metal Guru’, and then named the follow-up, the equally OTT and equally wonderful ‘Angel Fingers’ as runner-up to the song below…
‘Tiger Feet’, by Mud – #1 for 4 weeks in January/February 1974
Winner in my 3rd seventies recap, you could argue that tracks like this marked the beginning of the end for glam rock. From 1974 onwards the genre was swamped with rock ‘n’ roll tribute acts: Alvin Stardust, The Rubettes, Showaddywaddy, whose hits were catchy but, let’s be honest, dumb. Except, sometimes dumb and catchy is what you need, and when moments like that come along then you can do no better than turn to ‘Tiger Feet.’ Relish the video above… The riff, the repetitive chorus, a man in a dress, backing dancers that look like they’ve just come from the away end at Highbury… Fun fact: There has never been a ‘Best Of the 70s’ compilation that didn’t include ‘Tiger Feet.’
‘Can’t Give You Anything (But My Love)’, by The Stylistics – #1 for 3 weeks in August 1975
Here’s the outlier… I was genuinely surprised to find that this one qualified. I named it as runner-up in my 4th recap apparently, ahead of ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, and ‘I’m Not in Love’, which were punished for their ubiquity. But this is a great tune, and it feels right that a slice of soul should feature in this Top 10, as it was one of the sounds of the mid-seventies.
‘Space Oddity’, by David Bowie – #1 for 2 weeks in November 1975
One of the seventies’ Top 10 #1 singles is a re-release of a sixties hit? A mere technicality… We needed some Bowie, and this was his only chart-topper of the decade. I named it as best song in my 4th recap. An epic in every sense of the word.
‘Dancing Queen’, by ABBA – #1 for 6 weeks between August and October 1976
Friday night and the lights are low… Frida and Agnetha are looking out for a place to go. You know the rest. Everyone on planet earth knows the rest. The ultimate pop song? The famous glissando intro is instantly recognisable, and is referenced in ABBA’s comeback hit ‘Don’t Shut Me Down’. But. I only named it as runner-up in my 5th recap, because, well, Donna Summer went and did this:
‘I Feel Love’, by Donna Summer – #1 for 4 weeks in July/August 1977
The future arrived in the summer of ’77, beamed in on a spaceship piloted by one Donna Summer, with Giorgio Moroder as engineer. I rated it above ‘Dancing Queen’ precisely because it isn’t the ultimate pop song – it’s harsh, uncompromising and aggressively modern. You have to be in the mood for ‘I Feel Love’, which is why it hasn’t been overplayed to death, but when you are in the mood then woah. And it still sounds aggressively modern almost forty-five years on.
‘Heart of Glass’, by Blondie – #1 for 4 weeks in January/February 1979
Winner in my final ’70s recap, just two days ago. Blondie brought us a new-wave classic: a little disco, a little punk, a little classic rock, but beholden to none of what went before. Debbie Harry gave an impossibly cool lesson in how to be a rock ‘n’ roll frontwoman, too. 1979 – probably the best year of the decade in terms of chart-topping quality – was a-go go go. I know I love the glam years, but line these last three songs up – ABBA, Donna Summer and Blondie – and a better 10 minutes of popular music you’ll struggle to find.
So, there ends the 1970s. Next up, I’ll be cracking on with the eighties…
Recap time! Our fifteenth recap, taking in just under two years, from spring 1978 to the early, early weeks of 1980. It would have been great had this recap fallen right at the end of the seventies, but hey…
Our two most recent #1s have felt like a step forward, not just because they were the first two of the ‘80s, but because they’ve been so bold, so vibrantly dripping with (post) punkish attitude. The Pretenders swaggered into the new decade with ‘Brass in Pocket’, while The Specials shouted about birth-control – live – in ‘Too Much Too Young’. The eighties have begun with a bang. Can it last? (Well, sorry… no. Just wait till you see who’s up next!)
But, let me take you back a couple of years, to a time when disco still ruled the airwaves. The genre would explode in a puff of glitter, after a glorious run of chart-toppers, in early 1979. Before that, though, ’78 was probably the most disjointed, undefinable year of the decade. There were sixteen weeks where songs from the ‘Grease’ soundtrack occupied top-position, two shots of religious, disco-calypso from Boney M, a flashback to the MOR days of ’76-’77 from the Commodores, 10cc went reggae, Rod Stewart asked if we think he’s sexy… while The Boomtown Rats scored the very first new-wave #1. There were some long stays at the top – five weeks seemed to be the average – and some very high sales: ‘Rivers of Babylon’ and ‘You’re the One That I Want’ are in the Top 10 of all time.
But then, on New Year’s Eve 1978, The Village People sounded their klaxon, everyone ran to the dancefloor, and we were off on a thrilling run of chart-topping singles. One of the best ever. ‘YMCA’, ‘Tragedy’, ‘I Will Survive’ and ‘Heart of Glass’ perfected disco, meaning that the genre was completed, finished, not needed again. By the time Anita Ward came along, ringing her bell, it felt a little old hat. Blondie, in particular, had taken things a step further, mixing synths and guitars into the mix. The new-wave future had arrived…
Actually, the future seemed to be arriving every few weeks by the summer of 1979… Gary Numan and his Tubeway Army scored a couple of impossibly cool, completely electronic number ones. Bob and his Rats returned, with a rock opera about a school shooting. The Police brought a reggaeish, post-punk to the charts. The Buggles asked if this new-fangled video age was all it was cracked up to be… By the end of the year, Pink Floyd – releasing their first single in twelve years – had a Christmas number one about teachers and their means of mind-control…
There were anomalies in all this. The charts never quite do what you want them to. Right at the start of this run, Brian and Michael had a huge folksy singalong about the artist LS Lowry. Art Garfunkel had a low-key ballad about dead rabbits (and, of course, scored the year’s biggest-selling single). Cliff came back! With his best number one, ever! Country and Western kept popping up when you least expected it to…
I said at the time that I felt 1979 was the best year of the decade in terms of variety and quality of chart-toppers. I may not have loved every single one – in terms of my own personal enjoyment I’d say the glam years of ’72-’74 were ‘better’ – but the experimentation and sheer love for pop music that shone through in these closing months of the ‘70s was something else. And a very refreshing change after everything had gone a little soft-rock in our previous recap.
Which means there might be stiff competition when I have to choose the best of this past bunch. But first… the lesser awards. The ‘Meh’ Award, for example. Like I said, not many of the past thirty #1s have been dull. But I have three. I considered ‘Bright Eyes, but Art already has a ‘Meh’ award to his name, and to give a legend like him two out of two just seems mean. I also toyed with The Police and their second number-one, ‘Walking on the Moon’, which just didn’t connect with me. But, edging them out… not once, not twice, but three-times as dull… The Commodores with ‘Three Times a Lady’: a sludgy relic from the days when David Soul and Leo Sayer were ruling the charts.
On to the ‘WTAF’ Award, for being interesting if nothing else. Plenty of interesting #1s this time around. The Tubeway Army… ‘Cars’… The Buggles… But giving it to one of them would be because they sounded new and exciting. Not ‘weird’, as such. No, if you want weird, you have to choose between Ian Dury and his rhythm stick, or Pink Floyd’s ‘Another Brick in the Wall Pt II’. When I made my notes for this post a few days ago, I assumed I’d go with the Floyd. But, really, that record is just an Eagles-beat with some kids shouting. Whereas The Blockheads gave us a punky disco world-tour, from the deserts of Sudan to the gardens of Japan, full of shouting in German and spiky saxophone, sung by a self-proclaimed cripple poet. ‘Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick’ has it.
The main events, then. The fifteenth Very Worst Chart-Topper, joining luminaries such as Donny Osmond, Jimmy Young, and… checks notes… Elvis. Should I give it to Brian and Michael’s irritatingly parochial celebration of Lowry: ‘Matchstalk Men and Matchstalk Cats and Dogs’? No. A) That was fundamentally catchy. And B) ‘One Day at a Time’ exists. Yes, Lena Martell somehow preached her way to three weeks at the top with a self-righteous slice of country. It was by far the worst of the past bunch. Sweet Jesus!
Finally, then. Fanfare please. The Very Best Chart-Topper of the last thirty. I said earlier that there was a lot of competition but, to be honest, there’s only one winner this time around. I loved ‘YMCA’, ‘Rat Trap’, ‘I Will Survive’ and the ‘Grease’ hits… But towering above them all are Blondie, and ‘Heart of Glass’. One of the coolest songs ever to have topped the charts, and the perfect choice to sum up this moment in pop history, as we stand on the verge of a new decade, a new era…
To recap the recaps:
The ‘Meh’ Award for Forgettability:
‘Hold My Hand’, by Don Cornell.
‘It’s Almost Tomorrow’, by The Dream Weavers.
‘On the Street Where You Live’, by Vic Damone.
‘Why’, by Anthony Newley.
‘The Next Time’ / ‘Bachelor Boy’, by Cliff Richard & The Shadows.
‘Juliet’, by The Four Pennies.
‘The Carnival Is Over’, by The Seekers.
‘Silence Is Golden’, by The Tremeloes.
‘I Pretend’, by Des O’Connor.
‘Woodstock’, by Matthews’ Southern Comfort.
‘How Can I Be Sure’, by David Cassidy.
‘Annie’s Song’, by John Denver.
‘I Only Have Eyes For You’, by Art Garfunkel.
‘I Don’t Want to Talk About It’ / ‘The First Cut Is the Deepest’, by Rod Stewart.
‘Three Times a Lady’, by The Commodores.
The ‘WTAF’ Award for Being Interesting if Nothing Else:
‘I See the Moon’, by The Stargazers.
‘Lay Down Your Arms’, by Anne Shelton.
‘Hoots Mon’, by Lord Rockingham’s XI.
‘You’re Driving Me Crazy’, by The Temperance Seven.
‘Nut Rocker’, by B. Bumble & The Stingers.
‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’, by Gerry & The Pacemakers.
‘Little Red Rooster’, by The Rolling Stones.
‘Puppet on a String’, by Sandie Shaw.
‘Fire’, by The Crazy World of Arthur Brown.
‘In the Year 2525 (Exordium and Terminus)’, by Zager & Evans.
‘Amazing Grace’, The Pipes & Drums & Military Band of the Royal Scots Dragoon Guard.
‘Kung Fu Fighting’, by Carl Douglas.
‘If’, by Telly Savalas.
‘Wuthering Heights’, by Kate Bush
‘Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick’, by Ian Dury & The Blockheads.
The Very Worst Chart-Toppers:
‘Cara Mia’, by David Whitfield with Mantovani & His Orchestra.
‘The Man From Laramie’, by Jimmy Young.
‘Roulette’, by Russ Conway.
‘Wooden Heart’, by Elvis Presley.
‘Lovesick Blues’, by Frank Ifield.
‘Diane’, by The Bachelors.
‘The Minute You’re Gone’, by Cliff Richard.
‘Release Me’, by Engelbert Humperdinck.
‘Lily the Pink’, by The Scaffold.
‘All Kinds of Everything’, by Dana.
‘The Twelfth of Never’, by Donny Osmond.
‘The Streak’, by Ray Stevens.
‘No Charge’, by J. J. Barrie
‘Don’t Give Up On Us’, by David Soul
‘One Day at a Time’, by Lena Martell.
The Very Best Chart-Toppers:
‘Such a Night’, by Johnnie Ray.
‘Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White’, by Perez ‘Prez’ Prado & His Orchestra.
‘Great Balls of Fire’, by Jerry Lee Lewis.
‘Cathy’s Clown’, by The Everly Brothers.
‘Telstar’, by The Tornadoes.
‘She Loves You’ by The Beatles.
‘(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction’, by The Rolling Stones.
‘A Whiter Shade of Pale’, by Procol Harum.
‘I Heard It Through the Grapevine’, by Marvin Gaye.
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:
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…
The pre-penultimate #1 of the decade, then. And what’s this…? More country and western?
When You’re In Love With a Beautiful Woman, by Dr. Hook (their 1st and only #1)
3 weeks, from 11th November – 2nd December 1979
At least this isn’t the abrasive, twanging, Lord-have-mercy country style brought to us by Lena Martell. It’s a much softer, disco-edged kind of country. A sort of pop-Eagles. Completely against the grain of what’s topped the charts for much of 1979, but perfectly pleasant.
Let’s get one thing out of the way first: When you’re in love with a beautiful woman, It’s hard…(You know it gets so hard…) Well, quite. Stop sniggering at the back, there! Innuendo aside, it’s an interesting concept for a song, and very ‘country’ in the way a good thing – being in love with a beautiful woman – is gleaned for negatives.
You can’t trust your friends around her, you see. You watch her eyes. You wonder who that was hanging up when you answered the phone… Everybody wants her, Everybody loves her, Everybody wants to take your baby home… I like the backing vocalists – You better watch your friends, Watch your friends… – that feel as if they’re whispering devils on the singer’s shoulder.
Actually, though, if you stop and think about it, it’s a little bit sinister. Your lover’s unfaithful, your friends are backstabbers, the world is out to burst your loved-up bubble… Maybe it’s just an ego problem… sing Dr Hook. Sounds like it, yup. It’s a bit of a study in fragile masculinity, really. What’s the solution? Only go for ugly girls…? Be less of a suspicious twat…?
However, it’s easy to ignore the creepy undertones, and to get swept away by this light, fun, fairly inconsequential chart-topper. Dr Hook had been around since the start of the decade, popping up in the charts at regular intervals, before achieving their one and only chart-topper. The band name came from the fact that singer Ray Sawyer wore an eye-patch following a car crash. (Hook – Captain Hook – pirates – eye-patches… get it?)
This was almost their chart swan song – they would have a couple more Top 10s before splitting up in the mid-eighties. And this is almost our seventies swan song: just two more chart-toppers before the decade is out…!
Oh, OK… Well, this is perfect. After all that blather in my last post about a new-wave, technicolour era, as we prepared to dive head first into the eighties… This comes along.
One Day at a Time, by Lena Martell (her 1st and only #1)
3 weeks, from 21st October – 11th November 1979
I had forgotten, you see, that the British nation has a weird obsession with country and western music. Had forgotten that in amongst the explosion of new sounds topping the charts during the last year or so, that actually the most consistent sound of the seventies has not been glam, or disco, punk or synth-pop… It’s been C & W. From the decade’s 2nd #1 ‘Wand’rin’ Star’, through Dawn, Tammy Wynette, J.J. Barrie (shudder) and KennyRogers… to this.
One day at a time, Sweet Jesus…! We’ve had sentimental country, country with lonesome men and stoic women, folks returnin’ from war, from jail… But until now, we had been spared this. Christian Country. Show me the stairway, I have to climb, Lord for my sake, Teach me to take, One day at a time… Lena is struggling in this modern world, so she looks above for guidance.
One thing I knew about Lena Martell is that she and I are compatriots. Yep, the steady stream of country hits in the UK was, for some reason, largely fuelled by us Scots. Something about their hard-drinkin’, rough-livin’ ways appeals to us… (no comment) Martell is the second Glaswegian to have a country #1, after Billy Connolly. And she does, to be fair to her, put on a good southern twang. But while Connolly’s ‘D.I.V.O.R.C.E.’ was a funny piss-take, ‘One Day at a Time’ is painfully earnest. Truth is, I am a sucker for this kind of country schmaltz. Musically, this is fine. If she were singing about her good for nuthin’, cheatin’ man, I’d be all in. Unfortunately, this record is lyrically rancid.
In the final verse, she goes full ‘Daily Mail’ comments-board. Oh Lord, she moans, what’s the world coming to? Well, Jesus you know, if you’re looking below, It’s worse now than then… Cheatin’ and stealin’, Violence and crime… I’m going to be careful here, as I don’t want to offend anyone’s beliefs… But I’m pretty sure even the good Lord above would have been offended by this crap.
‘One Day at a Time’ was originally released by a Marilyn Sellars in 1974, and has been recorded over 200 times… Mostly by country singers I’ve never heard of, though I see both Tennessee Ernie Ford and Brotherhood of Man have had a crack. Meanwhile, this disc gave Lena Martell her one and only chart hit. She did, though, have a long-running show on the BBC, sang with Frank Sinatra on her US tours, and was releasing country and religious albums well into the 2000s, until she retired following heart surgery.
Fair play to her, then, for having a career that many can only dream of. As for her chart-topping, one-hit-wonder moment in the sun, though… I think I can sum it up in two words: Sweet Jesus!
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…
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.