Normally at this stage of the proceedings in a chart retrospective I’ll stop to note just where I was in life and which particular events still resonate in the memory when hearing these songs in this particular context again. Going back this far makes it tricky, I was just 13 years old and strange though it may sound was only just emerging from a period of self-imposed ignorance of much modern music. As will become clear later, however, one particular moment sparked a flame that has yet to die out. The only reference point I have is the annual festive treat organised by the school, which for we Third Years at the time was an evening out at Bradford ice rink. It was there I think I heard Merry Xmas Everybody and linked it for the first time with the perennial Slade track which I’d read about in the copy of British Hit Singles borrowed from the school library.
Mind you, I remember seeing the next song on Top Of The Pops as well:
Also known as “O’er The Sea To Skye” by anyone who learned to play the recorder at the tail end of the 20th century, the Skye Boat Song is generally reckoned to date from the 1870s, recalling the escape of Bonnie Prince Charlie after defeat at the Battle Of Culloden in 1746. Folk singer (and celebrated whistler) Roger Whittaker had featured the song in his act since the 1970s, a period in which he’d also clocked up a small handful of hit singles, most notably The Last Farewell which had reached Number 2 in July 1975. He had however been absent from the charts ever since then until a chance performance with Des O’Connor on one of the latter’s TV shows led to the release of this rather famous duet. O’Connor himself was no stranger to the singles chart, having reached Number One with I Pretend back in 1968, but he too had been absent from the charts for some time, his last chart hit having been way back in 1970. So it was that the two performing veterans made a memorable bid for chart glory, their strangely compelling version of the old Scottish song managing to reach Number 10 in late November, the single release maybe coming just too early to be considered a Christmas chart contender, although it was still here just inside the Top 20 by the time the festive season arrived.
The serious illness suffered by her husband Chris Stein in the early 1980s not only caused the cessation of Blondie’s recording activities but it also momentarily put on hold Debbie Harry’s burgeoning solo career following the release of her album KooKoo in 1981. Five years later Stein had recovered and it was all systems go again with Harry’s second album Rockbird hitting the shops in November 1986. The lead single from the album was an epic piece of new wave disco, the thudding bassline of French Kissin’ In The USA a more or less permanent fixture on European radio towards the back end of the year. Despite the title, the single was never a major success in America but it remains Debbie Harry’s most notable solo chart single, reaching Number 8 in early December 1986 to become her one and only Top 10 single outside of her work with Blondie. French Kissin’ In The USA is also the one and only hit single penned by one Chuck Lorre, these days a renowned television writer with a string of hit sitcoms under his belt, but back then an aspiring musician and composer, immortalised forever as the creator of this seasonal hit single.
Ask people to name an Elkie Brooks hit, and aside from the ones who shamefully say “who?”, those familiar with the former Vinegar Joe singer will almost certainly name past classics such as Pearl’s A Singer or her hit cover of Chris Rea’s Fool If You Think It’s Over. Yet far and away her biggest ever hit single in her native country is the epic, smouldering ballad No More The Fool, the title track from an album of the same name and which at one point threatened to spark off a most unexpected late 80s comeback. Sadly it never quite worked out that way with none of her later singles turning into hits, but as chart swansongs go this was quite something. Written and produced by Russ Ballard, the single took almost a full month to catch fire following a mid-November release but by Christmas it was powering its way up the singles chart and had for the moment come to rest here, just inside the Top 20. One of those singles which manages to float its way into contention after the holiday finishes, No More The Fool would eventually spend three weeks at Number 5 in January, far and away Elkie Brooks’ highest-charting single ever and one which dragged its parent album kicking and screaming into the Top 10 to boot. One of her greatest, theoretically most memorable but oddly least remembered hit singles. Correct this now and appreciate its brilliance.
Another ill-starred follow-up, Dreamin’ was a pleasant four minutes of vintage quo, augmented by horns and harmonies but one which had the enormous misfortune to be the follow-up to In The Army Now, the cover version of an old Dutch hit single which had turned their traditional formula on its head and in the process become their biggest hit single in six years when it peaked at Number 2 in late October 1986. The fourth a final single from the In The Army Now album, such is the fate of Dreamin’ is that the most interesting thing to say about it is that it wasn’t the title track, instead a Number 15 hit single at the very tail end of the year.
It was arguably Michael Jackson’s Thriller album which set the template for promotional activity from the late 1980s onwards. Whereas before major acts confined themselves to two or maybe three single releases, the relentless parade of Jackson releases were a major factor in helping his second solo work to become the world’s biggest selling album of all time. This then informed the strategy for a number of big name acts, perhaps none more surprising than Genesis who had begun their career as the very antithesis of a singles act, their best work confined to the eight-minute prog-rock epics which populated their earlier work. The album Invisible Touch was their first since Phil Collins had become a major star in his own right and that appeal undoubtedly carried itself over to his first album back with his bandmates in three years. What also helped was the succession of immaculate, appealing pop songs found on board, five of which became hit singles over a 13 month period and which all helped Invisible Touch to become one of their most enduring releases for some time. All of which brings us to Land Of Confusion, the third hit single from the album and as chance would have it the biggest of all, its Number 14 peak in early January 1987 narrowly shading the Number 15 scaled by the title track the previous summer. A track which saw the group as close to heavy rock as they ever came, Land Of Confusion’s success was undoubtedly helped by its famous video which saw the group depicted as Spitting Image puppets, alongside some other very famous names.
Onto less weighty matters and one of the best pure pop singles on this chart, the sixth and final hit single from Birmingham-born singer Jaki Graham who had begun her career a year earlier alongside David Grant on Could It Be I’m Falling In Love. Although the hits dried up following this hit single which neatly reached its chart peak just in time for Christmas, she continued to record and release albums until well into the 1990s. The final word is best left to her Wikipedia page which at the time of writing [it was removed in the spring alas] announces that:
Jaki's management company have hinted at a possible 2013 UK Tour and a launch of official merchandise in the near future, as well as a range of sex toys.
You’ll never listen to Round And Round in the same way again, trust me. Sorry, where were we? Oh yes, Top Gun, the big hit film of the moment and the one which turned Tom Cruise into a full-blown superstar, introduced Val Kilmer to the world and briefly made Kelly McGillis an icon. Core to the film’s appeal was its impressive soundtrack, scored by Harold Faltermeyer and featuring several hit tracks with Giorgio Moroder’s influence stamped all over them. One such track was the film’s official “love theme”, handed to hitherto cult Los Angeles new wave band Berlin who subsequently found themselves on the top of the charts all over the world. Just like in Britain for example, where Take My Breath Away soared to Number One with breathtaking ease in early November, spending four weeks at the top and becoming the ninth biggest selling single of the year. It would return to the Top 10 four years later when the combination of both a TV commercial and the television premiere of Top Gun helped it back to Number 3. The other worldwide smash hit single from the film soundtrack was another Moroder composition, the Kenny Loggins track Danger Zone. British audiences were less impressed with this one and for Christmas 1986 it was at Number 67 on the charts, two weeks after having peaked at Number 45.
The last ever Dexy’s Midnight Runners hit single came precisely three and a half years after its immediate predecessor and was actually to all intents and purposes a Kevin Rowland solo single with the band itself having effectively disbanded following the disastrous release of their Don’t Stand Me Down album in 1985. The gentle folk ballad Because Of You is effectively immortalised forever thanks its use as the theme to tune to the hit sitcom “Brush Strokes” which was airing its first series on BBC television at this time. There would have been far worse ways for one of the 1980s’ most iconic groups to bow out though, and it actually remains a shame that this was as far as the single climbed, another track peaking nicely for the Christmas chart. With the series having long since vanished from the screens and from popular memory, Because Of You stands tall as the great forgotten Dexy’s single too, overlooked because it isn’t one of the ones about Eileen or a man we’ll meet later…
As far as most people (OK, make that virtually everyone) are concerned, funk outfit The Gap Band are forever defined by their 1980 hit single Oops Upside Your Head, one which over 30 years later is guaranteed to fill dancefloors with people sitting down to pretend to row a boat. And yet, to continue another theme, their highest-charting single ever is actually this one, the lead single from their tenth album (the confusingly titled Gap Band 8). Stalled here at Number 12 over the Christmas holiday, Big Fun would go on to peak at Number 4 early in the new year. But it still doesn’t have a cute dance.
Another one from the file of ill-starred follow-up singles, So Cold The Night is actually the Communards’ second-biggest hit single, the only one of Jimmy Somerville and Richard Coles’ own compositions to make the Top 10 when it peaked at Number 8 just before Christmas. Yet its major misfortune was naturally to be the immediate follow-up to their hit cover version of Don’t Leave Me This Way which had spent four weeks at Number One in early September and would eventually prove to be unchallenged as the biggest selling single of the year. Not that So Cold The Night is a band single as such, but there were far more memorable Communards tracks released as singles both before and afterwards. It is hard to shake the feeling that it went Top 10 more thanks to the momentum of its predecessor than anything else. Yet it was still Number 11 for Christmas, so fair play.