About a year ago I wrote a series of pieces here dissecting a selection of Christmas Top 10 countdowns, testing the theory that singles charting at Christmas invariably go on to be regarded as classics of their time, or even of all time. Those pieces have grabbed themselves hits all year long so it seems appropriate as we hit December to embark on another retrospective romp.
This time I'll take inspiration from the vast and ever-growing collection of Top 40 shows that I have mostly on cassette and more recently CD. This was a habit I got into as a teenager and for some reason have never grown out of, recording and keeping the Radio One Top 40 chart show at roughly four-week intervals. The collection dates back to June 1987, weighs far more than I care to imagine and barely fits under the bed. Digging out a random tape is always a fun exercise, if only for the memories that each one contains. Back in the days when music soundtracked pretty much my whole life (my father complaining I couldn't live without what he termed "instant beat" the moment entered my room), I can tell you what I was thinking, doing and feeling at the time each one was recorded. For that reason there are certain tapes that are particularly special, whether because they represented a great time in life or simply because they captured a snapshot of a great period in music when just about every song on the chart could be considered a classic of some description. For those wondering, yes there are certain tapes that are quite the reverse and are wall to wall garbage. The one from October 1994 is a particularly pertinent example.
So for this bit of archive commentary, let's take one old Top 40 show and reminisce about each song that was played. For older ones this doesn't mean the full chart, just the tracks that were played on the two hour show, normally about 30 or so. Consider it a review of the tape, not necessarily the chart. Oh yes, and before I get accused of turning into the kind of old fart who reminisces endlessly about the songs of yesteryear and complains that today's offerings will never be looked at in the same light, I'm allowing myself to get nostalgic about music that is old enough to be considered in the context of its age and to reflect on how it has influenced that which followed. That is not to say it is necessarily superior to anything you can hear now and please may I never fall into the trap of thinking along those lines. Remember that in years gone by today's teenagers will look back on the charts of 2007 as the golden age of their musical upbringing.
Enough preamble, let's crack open the cassette containing the show broadcast almost exactly 20 years ago on November 29th 1987. Even in the first year of recording I used to aim for this week specifically, as not only was it exactly four weeks before the Christmas chart but also represented the first flowering of the singles destined to be Top 10 hits in the festive week. There was method in this madness.
Spookily enough we immediately hit on a song that is so familiar it is in the charts as we speak. This was the first-ever appearance of the now famous seasonal hit, widely acclaimed by reviewers at the time as an almost dead-cert for the seasonal Number One. At the time it was only ever the third hit single for the Irishmen, although they had made a welcome and still fondly remembered commercial breakthrough earlier that year with a romp through the traditional song The Irish Rover. I think at the time everyone knew it would be massive, but nobody could have predicted what a classic it would become. Most of the focus was how to deal with the lyrics of the third verse which features some rather fruity language at times. Radio One played it without conscience, Simon Mayo on the breakfast show gleefully introducing it as "the scumbag song". When the time came to perform it on Top Of The Pops the producers not only changed the line "Happy Christmas Your Arse" to "Happy Christmas Your Ass" but unsubtly dipped the sound at that point, drawing even more attention to the lyrics. Dolts. Meanwhile, I was convinced that it wasn't going to be Christmas Number One. My pick was entering the charts one place higher.
Not the Mel and Kim of course but Mel Smith and Kim Wilde, teaming up on what was only the second-ever Comic Relief single. Like the Cliff and the Young Ones single before it, the record managed the rare feat of being a comedy record that remains funny upon repeated listens even if it only gets sporadic airings today (indeed I'm sure I have a compilation album somewhere that includes the recording bereft of all its comedy inserts). I wonder though, when the video gets its annual airing on the music channels, does anyone watching still recognise the carol singers as members of Curiosity Killed The Cat? The single release was to herald the first Red Nose Day, set to take place in February 1988 and which proved to be such an unexpected success that the ensuing red nose shortage was on the verge of becoming a national crisis. Into the breach stepped Blue Peter to dutifully explained how to make your own out of an egg box*. No word of a lie. Mel and Kim ultimately only made Number 3 for Christmas, outsold by the Pogues, chiz curses.
* Cut off piece of egg holder, paint red, bore two holes in the side, affix to face with elastic. To think Tracey Island was just four years away.
37: Rebel Without A Pause - Public Enemy
A new entry at 40 the previous week, it got a play on the chart show thanks to this three-place climb. I was probably the last person who would have claimed to be a hip-hop fan at the age of 14, although I knew plenty of people at school who were. Nonetheless, my catholic music tastes meant that I listened to the track with eager ears, fascinated by the way it appeared to be based around what seemed to be an endlessly boiling kettle and peppered with references to the mysterious Terminator X (the groups' DJ for the curious, all rap acts at the time had to come with their own live mixing DJ in tow, it was some sort of rule). Public Enemy were on the verge of taking their sound and their lyrics mainstream, untouched by semi-comedic dance remixes (unlike Eric B and Rakim). A tiny hit single but a small part of one of the most important and seminal rap albums ever made. With this one single, Chuck D, Flavor Flav and crew were about to break down more barriers than perhaps they had ever dared believe.
They didn't know it at the time, but Five Star were rapidly hurtling down what Smash Hits at the time liked to term The Dumper. The Pearson family's 1986 album Silk And Steel was always going to be a hard act to follow, but their attempt to add a harder edge to their sound on the 1987 followup Between The Lines saw them jettison their pop audience in favour of a more mature crowd far too suddenly to sustain a career on the back of the people left. In a way this is a shame. As love ballads go, Strong As Steel is warmer, more reflective and a hundred times better produced than Rain Or Shine but it is the latter single that will always be remembered as one of their finest moments on record. Somewhere Somebody was the third and final single from the album and was to become their first single for two years not to make the Top 20. I actually preferred the "new" Five Star to the old one but sadly for them I was in a minority. Incidentally, even at the time I knew that Denise wasn't singing "I tell myself I'm a Grandma, but I cry anyway" but 20 years later I still think it is the better lyric.
A little-remembered but in its own way very famous track indeed. The thrash metallers had made their chart debut earlier in the year but scored their first-ever Top 20 hit single with what they termed "the first ever heavy metal rap". Sending up both themselves and the Beastie Boys, the group chanted their way through an increasingly bizarre series of verses, their hardcore lyrical stance undermined by either getting the rhyme wrong or being forced to self-censor, so that "dick" wound up as the less elegant "sexual organ located in the lower abdominal area". A concert favourite from that moment on, it was also reportedly the track that inspired their 1991 collaboration with Public Enemy themselves on a proper heavy metal rap version of Bring The Noise. A fine example of a "serious" rock group making a comedy record for the sheer hell of it and advancing their own career in the process.
There is a whole list to be made of covers of classic records which turn out to be classics themselves. Into that category we can just about squeeze this seasonal hit from Alison Moyet, a cover of the song written for a film in 1945, first recorded by Dick Haymes and subsequently turned into a hit by Kitty Lester and Elvis Presley in the 60s. A one-off single, not included on her album Raindancing, it was her first video to feature Dawn French as comic relief, the comedienne snatching away the titular love letters and silently exclaiming to the audience just what they contained. Sadly and mysteriously one of her last big hits (although Dawn French would return for Whispering Your Name six years later), but a very worthwhile cover and seasonal release.
1987 saw Prince at the peak of his game, averaging almost an album a year and being showered with plaudits for each one. The Sign O The Times album had already spawned three hit singles before this track appeared. I Could Never Take The Place Of Your Man is possibly the closest thing he ever made to a singalong pop record, the tale of turning down the girl on the obvious rebound featuring a killer chorus, a handclap rhythm and a commercial edge he could sometimes be accused of lacking. A smallish hit, but it was the album's fourth single after all. I would suggest it is testament to the strength of Sign O The Times that one of its best pop tracks had to wait to be the fourth single, but that is to overlook the fact that If I Was Your Girlfriend was bizarrely picked as the second. I know at least one person who became a lifelong Prince fan after hearing this track on the radio. Who can blame them really?
You would never contemplate it these days, but Johnny Hates Jazz spent the whole of 1987 releasing singles without ever scheduling their debut album (it would later emerge in early 1988). This sentimental ballad was the third and would spend the Christmas period meandering its way up the chart before finally peaking in early January after all the other holiday hits had faded away. I loved Shattered Dreams and I Don't Want To Be A Hero but for some reason the drippy sentiment of this single annoyed the heck out of me at the time, probably because of its long chart run and airplay ubiquity thanks to Radio One's ageing stars playing it to death.
The third single and title track from what is justifiably one of the most famous metal albums ever made. Three years in the making, Def Leppard's Hysteria remains British rock's benchmark for sales, artistry and long-lasting influence. They may subsequently have ruined themselves by using it as a template for later releases for far too long, but at the time it was one of the most innovative and lavish rock albums heard for decades. Curiously enough this single came out just before it crossed over to the mainstream and was still the domain of heavy metal fans. First single Animal had gone Top 10 but the now acknowledged classic Pour Some Sugar On Me had barely scraped the Top 20. Late November seemed a perfect moment to release the brooding title track but this Number 26 placing proved to be its ultimate peak making it the smallest hit single from the now-famous album. They need not have worried, a further three Top 20 hits and several million more global sales were still around the corner.
Topicality ahoy given that Cutting Crew's first single I Just Died In Your Arms inspired Mika's Relax, Take It Easy [a hit in waiting at the time of writing]. The follow up was on its second time around here having originally been released in October 1986 when it stiffed at Number 31. With the band having spent most of 1987 conquering America (topping the charts with I Just Died In Your Arms) it seemed a good move to reactivate the single once again and turn it into the hit everyone thought it should have been, this time the production boosted by a remix which made it sound a little less weedy. Ultimately it only managed a few places better but this does mean it can be ranked as a long-lost classic. You will struggle to find a better example of late 80s corporate balladry but I can't be the only person with a special place in their heart for the track. With the Mika song set for a new year re-release, the door is open for Cutting Crew to be rediscovered, which should be an odd experience to say the least.
So ends the first part of the 1987 retrospective. Ten songs played on the chart show and approximately 20 more to come. Near the top of the chart we get songs people might actually have heard in the last five years as well.