Saturday, March 12, 2011

Chart-Broiled: The UK Number Ones 1980 (3.44)


What's this? Well, I've decided to look at the songs down the years that have hit number one. I chose the UK rather than the USA because I think it's by and large a more interesting chart, and it's the one I'm less familiar with. Having said that, though, a lot of these 'unknown in North America' songs entered my subconscious somehow, because many of the seemingly unknown songs I in fact definitely recognised.

Still, here's the idea: I take every song ever to hit the number one in the UK (starting with 1980 because you have to start somewhere, and the 1980s are kind of my forté) and rate it, giving it a rating somewhere from one to five stars. This, by itself, is a worthy exercise, since both wonderful songs and horrid ones hit number one. This will let me see what the very best UK chart toppers are. And the worst.

The other thing that's cool, though, is it'll let me 'compare years'. I've taken an average of all of the ratings for the year, so we'll be able to see which years had great charts in the UK and which didn't. Notice that in calculating the overall yearly score, I calculate the average of weeks, not of songs. 1991, for example, saw the KLF's '3 a.m. Eternal', a personal favourite of mine, hit number one, as well as Bryan Adams's execrable '(Everything I Do) I Do It For You'. You might call that a draw - a great song and a piece of rubbish. But the KLF managed two weeks at the top while Bryan Adams was there for 16 painful weeks. It's tough to call that equal, is it? Clearly Bryan Adams drags 1991 down much further than the KLF can bring it back up. So I would multiply Adams's score by sixteen and the KLF's score by only two, dividing the ultimate end result in each case by 52.

Anyway... 1980, a year of loose ends. Look at the strange mix of disco, new wave, American country, MOR and God knows what else here. You can see the 1980s beginning, but the 1970s are musically very much alive here. There are embarrassments, but by and large these are decent examples of really diverse genres. And it all starts off with the words "Hey teacher! Leave those kids alone!"

1. Another Brick in the Wall (Part II) 
Pink Floyd (2 weeks in 1980)

Quite a song to ring in the new decade on. It's tough to find something to say about this song: it's barely even a song at all, really, just a few simple slogans, really, with a guitar solo. And aren't Pink Floys 'pieces' always meant to be consumed within their album context and not on top-40 radio? But it's Pink Floyd-meets-disco with a kids' choir shouting at their teachers, and that's just shy of perfection, isn't it?

2. Brass in Pocket
The Pretenders (2 weeks)

What do you suppose was more difficult: being Chrissie Hynde in 1980 and having to bear the crushing weight of your awesomeness, or being her ever since and carrying the disappointment of faded ambition? After all, being this swaggeringly-awesome carries a lot of responsibility with it.

3. The Special AKA Live!
The Special AKA feat. Rico (2 weeks) 

Ah, the Specials. They were pretty great, you know, even if this live EP, with 'Too Much Too Young' the 'a-side', not quite showing them at their best. it's pretty silly 'message' stuff, even if the message, about contraception, is perhaps not political correctness at its finest. It's good fun, but it's not 'peak' Specials.

4. Coward of the County
Kenny Rogers (2 weeks) 

So much for pacifism. This story song seems to be taking a 'higher road' until the end, when it craps out in spectacular fashion. it's Nashville 'countrypolitan' at its sleekest, which is to say it'd be intolerable were it not for that singalong melody and Kenny Rogers's inherent likability. It's not really enough though.

5. Atomic
Blondie (2 weeks)

This is probably the absolute pinnacle of 'the art of Blondie', with its disco-meets-new wave groove absolute perfection. This still sounds like the future, thirty-one years later. But Debbie Harry brings this down, unfortunately. It's the vocals that are the weak part here. As an instrumental it would have been an easy five stars.

6. Together We are Beautiful
Fern Kinney (1 week)

This is pretty obscure - a 'midtempo disco' track that was a forgotten b-side in Kinney's native USA but somehow topped the pops in the UK. It didn't merit it, though, being competent but forgettable.

7. Going Underground 
The Jam (3 weeks)

Their first number one, and it's pretty good stuff. Does what it says on the label, really: post-punk 'mod' stuff teeming with change-the-world energy and passion. Maybe not the Jam's absolute finest, but it's more than fine enough, really.

8. Working My Way Back to You
The Detroit Spinners (2 weeks)

This is just a great song, and it has to be said that it fits a disco format. The Spinners are a great soul harmony group, and it seems strange to long for Frankie Valli's dog-whistle voice, but I'm more familiar with the Four Seasons' original, and this is ultimately just a discofied cover. Well done, though, and enjoyable from start to finish.

9. Call Me 
Blondie (1 week)

This was a hell of a year for Blondie. This was apparently the biggest hit of their career. It was from a soundtrack, and it's the pinnacle of their 'thumping disco' ambitions. It's pretty great stuff, really, with Debbie Harry on fine hollering form.

10. Geno
Dexys Midnight Runners (2 weeks)

Over here, they were one-hit wonders. Our loss... Kevin Rowland's band made some brilliant music. For a little stretch, anyway. This is pretty uncategorisable stuff: is it retro soul? Or is it ska? It's not Irish fiddle music, for sure. But it's still exciting stuff.

11. What's Another Year 
Johnny Logan (2 weeks) 

Oh, Eurovision. That explains it. Johnny Logan won Eurovision three times, a record. This was his first, and if definitely sounds like a Eurovision weeper. Which is to say it makes you weep in disappointment.

12. Theme from M*A*S*H (Suicide is Painless)
M*A*S*H (3 weeks)

A ten-year-old movie/TV theme hitting number one is just one of those things that makes the UK charts so strange... I'm more familiar with the instrumental version, and listening to this makes me realise why. It's a sparkling melody, but the lyrics are a bit overwrought and the mass vocals wooden. They should have stuck with the instrumental.

13. Crying
Don McLean (3 weeks)

This is just a great song. Beautiful from start to finish. Don McLean doesn't actually do anything with it other than stick faithfully to it and perform it exquisitely. But what more could you want, really? Gorgeous whoever performs it.

14. Xanadu 
Olivia Newton-John and Electric Light Orchestra (2 weeks) 

This is why disco died, right? Olivia and ELO were about to disappear into the ether as the 1970s truly became the 1980s. And let's admit it - this is why. Cheesy with little to redeem it.

15. Use It Up and Wear it Out 
Odyssey (2 weeks)

This is a strange #1 (it didn't even reach the Hot 100 in Odyssey's native USA). Not because it's bad - it's a pretty good party groove, a deeply funky polyrhythmic jam. The thing is that it's not exactly a song but more like a five-minute excerpt from a really good party. Whistle test not applicable, though.

16. The Winner Takes It All 
ABBA (2 weeks)

Probably more than even 'Dancing Queen', the single song that best shows what was great about ABBA. There's nothing bad you can say about this moving piece of popular art.

17. Ashes to Ashes 
David Bowie (2 weeks) 

David Bowie was about to get really horrible. This is meant to be a sort of 'comeback', but I find I like it better theoretically than viscerally. It's just unloveable somehow, pipped quality-wise by both part one ('Space Oddity') and part three ('Major Tom (Völlig losgelöst)' by Peter Schilling). It gives me no joy. And what is Bowie if not a giver of joy?

18. Start!
The Jam (1 week) 

A cover of the Beatles' 'Taxman', done and dusted in 135 seconds. It's good enough fun, I suppose, but it has no real reason to exist. It's just... there.

19. Feels Like I'm in Love
Kelly Marie (2 weeks)

One of the coolest things about disco was the sheer anonymity. Who, pray tell, was Kelly Marie? It matters not. This is her sole three minutes in the sun, and she does what she can with it - which is quite a bit, actually. She's no Donna Summer, but she's capable of imparting more than her fair share of dance-floor 'release'. Good fun.

20. Don't Stand So Close to Me 
The Police (4 weeks)

The year's biggest hit. Everything the Police ever was, writ large: beautiful atmospheric pseudo-reggae music, ridiculous lyrics. Give Sting some credit, though. The poor English teacher is trying. Perhaps not autobiographical. Like always, Sting is the weak point here, but it's still a sturdy little tune, deserving of its fame.

21. Woman in Love 
Barbra Streisand (3 weeks)

Damned song. I want to hate it, hate its MOR arrangement and Babs's tastefully precious vocals. But the melody is just so strong you find yourself forgiving its mushy excesses.

22. The Tide is High 
Blondie (2 weeks)

The faux-Caribbean 'feel good' vibe of this song fills me with nothing but despair for the human condition.

23. Super Trouper 
ABBA (3 weeks)

ABBA at their least compelling are still good craftwork, but they don't stop traffic. This is merely generic.

24. (Just Like) Starting Over 
John Lennon (1 week)

A retro pastiche that is difficult to discuss critically - after all, it's not the song's inherent charms that pushed it to number one but the events that occurred the week before it rose to number one. We'll see a lot of John Lennon in January of 1981, but this was the initial eulogy: bitterly ironic, right? I love listening to it, but the emotional response I get from it is intimately connected with the 'experience' of it all, even if at five years old I barely comprehended what was happening.

25. There's No-One Quite Like Grandma
St Winifred's School Choir (1 week in 1980) 


That gives a total of 3.44 for the year 1980. Since this is the first year I've done, I don't know if that's going to count as a good finish or now. We'll see...

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