Friday, 17 April 2009

A Hand Reaching Out In The Darkness: The UK Top Ten, 12 April 2009

Before I go on to talk about the top ten of April 12, 2009 - the best chart that has been heard in some time - I want to talk a little about how I decide if I will purchase something - an album in this case - or not.

There are not one but three places to consider inside yourself while making a decision - the head, the heart and the guts. The head, upon seeing the album, will tell you useful things like if it is too expensive, in good/bad condition, and whether you own the darn thing already. All the answers here being satisfactory, the decision baton goes to the heart. How do you feel about the musician(s)? Does the music hit you right there? Does it give you energy and cheer you up? (I realize there are some who want music that does other things - but the heart wants some emotional connection beyond 'solid craftsmanship.') The heart being pleased, we next go to the ultimate judge - your guts (aka the 'small still voice', intuition, etc.) Sometimes you can have an instinctive reaction to a song/album/artist that goes beyond any rational reaction, straight into the profound center of music itself; chances are, that is your gut reaction.

What is the most gratifying thing, of course, is if the head, heart and guts all agree - as I find they do with this chart, a chart that defies any head-heavy sourpurses and those dreaded rockists (poptimists I see they now call themselves) - an all-pop list that appropriately emphasizes and revives New Pop, 28 years after it so colorfully & shinily emerged from various corners to brighten and reassure over a generation ago.

To the chart! From the bottom to the top:

10. "Love Story" Taylor Swift

"This love is difficult but it's real."



Love as an act of defiance; as something worth fighting for, worth believing in, even on the outskirts of town. Love is far more than ballgowns. Romeo and Juliet get a happy ending at last, the Scarlet Letter is ripped off and thrown away...

9. "Right Round" Flo Rida feat. Kesha

"Ain't nothing more beautiful to be found"



Another kind of defiance is to give in to what is 'wrong' - a man and a woman become oblivious to the rest of the world (cf. the Surrealist film wherein the couple are inseparable, surrounded by a crowd trying to pull them apart). They are dizzy with desire, with pleasure, and if he's losing his money - well, it was his decision to go out, to get down (in all meanings and senses) in the first place. She is beautiful; she is beauty, and he is helpless, though not hapless. He's out of control and unlike "Low" he is not just a taker, so to speak, but a giver as well...

8. "Shake It" Metro Station

"When you touch her like this, she goes like that!"



Here the joys of physical interaction (if I can put it that way) are more innocent, more excitable. They are getting to know each other, how they feel, how they act & especially how they react to each other. The polite coolness that was there at first is starting to melt, warming up to a more pleasurable soft breath on the cheek, as they dance. They both shake it in joy and freedom, knowing they are falling in love and happy just to be together.

7. "Halo" Beyonce

"I ain't never gonna shut you out"



Here, the walls come tumbling down - love as a religious (not just physical) experience, her Other is an angel, her "saving grace." This song points to the BIGNESS of this chart - that love is about danger, surrender and joy, yes, but it is also about seeing the divinity in another person - loving their soul as well as their body...

6. "Love Sex Magic" Ciara & Justin Timberlake

"You know that I can make you believe..."



Ciara and Justin do tricks, conjuring up magic out of seemingly nothing; they know they are falling in love, but are a little more grown up than the kids in "Shake It" - they know "tricks you've never seen" and they are the star-crossed lovers in the crowd, snapping to the beat of "Nasty" and upping the antes as they slink and slide around. It is exactly what you want from them, and damn sexy, too...

5. "Don't Upset The Rhythm" The Noisettes

"You know we won't compromise, so let me show you something superbeautiful."



The first time I heard this, I danced! That is a greater commentary than any other I could write, but what a celebration of the need and will to dance, no matter what. I sometimes wonder what would have happened had the G20 protestors, instead of marching, had had a Notting Hill-type carnival, complete with soundtrucks and DJs...hmmmm...

4. "In For The Kill" La Roux

"How far can you send emotions?"



If there is one thing some folks hate, it's a song that shows a young woman's self-determination. La Roux is "hoping you'll understand" her need, but she is not apologetic, hysterical or half-hearted. And it's not a love song (I think...) either. Score one for 1981 drama, for a welcome dose of warm rationalism...

3. "Jai Ho (You Are My Destiny)" Pussycat Dolls & AR Rahman

"There's an ocean in my heart, I will never be the same."



And so we jump from the private thrills of one woman to, crucially, a public celebration of a long-destined relationship. He is the reason she believes, that she breathes; this is clearly a more intense love than any we have encountered on the list so far, a love that has the force of history itself behind it. That this is celebrated in public adds to the happiness and warmth incredibly, a whole community moved enough to rejoice in one couple's destiny is astonishing indeed. (And feel the BIGNESS of it all, again!)

2. "Poker Face" Lady GaGa

"Check this hand 'cause I'm marvelous."



Here we have another self-determined woman, one who relishes the game, the chase, the bluffing and revealing of feelings - sure, she's a tough cookie, but she is going to stun him and leave him wanting more - sure, she says she's not about kissing or hugging, but how much do we really believe a woman who wears a mask? Her claims for being unreadable are so many promises; the real self is there, one day she's got to show emotions or else what good is hiding them for?

1. "I'm Not Alone" Calvin Harris

"If I see a light flashing
Could this mean that I’m coming home
?"



As great as these songs have been - and I would, if I were rating them, give them high marks indeed - this one is at the top, not just of the chart but in my own thoughts. In order to explain how it was that I cried when I heard it made #1 that early Easter evening, I have to go back a few weeks...*

...as some of you know, I collapsed one night in mid-March, and had to stay in hospital for nearly a week. Hospitals are an odd combination of the utterly personal and impersonal; being an emergency patient, I experienced just about everything you can experience in such a place, shorn of nearly all possessions and utterly dependent on a whole system of smaller systems to bring me back to some reasonable semblance of health and happiness (my dear husband, Marcello, helped a great deal on both counts; I doubt if I would be half as well as I am now without him).

I must have heard this song while in that early stage of recovery, the week just before spring arived; but it was too quiet for me to grasp what he was saying/singing. (I should also add that before my collapse, I fell in love with a song by Defender called "Bliss" - M magically found the Hed Kandi compilation that has it (Served Chilled 59) while I was in hospital. I cannot imagine Calvin Harris not knowing this song and its utterly FREEING feeling.)

"I'm Not Alone," as some of its detractors have noted, is no ordinary song. (These are the grumpy types who want verse/chorus/verse. HAH) What Harris does here is conjure jp an all-too-likely scenario of late nights, sacrifice, trying to remain strong, and then...he's on the floor and feet are coming through the door...

This song, at this most extreme moment, then opens up like no other - the sun comes out and that heavenly riff begins, one that shines and warms and...well, you can imagine my reaction to such HOW DID HE KNOW lyrics and then comes just that little bit more - if on "Dance Wiv Me" he sounded a bit like Terry Hall (in a good way, I hasten to add), here after this divine intervention he sounds like himself, of course, but also like...Scott Walker (particularly when he sings "coming home...") To say that this song gratifies my head, heart and guts is a gross understatement - it does all this and more (when I heard it yesterday I felt it from my head to my toes; it gave me energy, just as surely as the hospital gave me blood and oxygen on that first night). That this is an unorthodox song is the entire piont of it; this is no ordinary experience.

Nor, I can guess, is it a solitary one. As "I'm Not Alone" plainly states, none of us is alone, and in times ("Hard times!" as the Human League said, back in '81) like these, that is the overwhelming message, even above those of love, sex and self-determination. People who snub this are using their head far more than their heart, I'm afraid; but the tremendous response to it (which looks to be continuing) mean they are, as far as I can tell, in the minority. For me (and Marcello), this solid all-pop top ten shows the virtues of the democratic process as opposed to the narrow, aristocratic channels that reject what pop can do at its greatest moments - give warmth, comfort and compassion on a day signifying rebirth.

*When I was with Marcello for Easter 2007, we were moved to cry by another chart - not the current one at the time, but one from 1978 that was broadcast on Pick of the Pops.

Monday, 6 April 2009

FROM THE BOTTOM TO THE TOP – WEEK ENDING 20 MARCH 1976

As far as retrochart radio shows go I’ve long since thought that Gold Music’s From The Bottom To The Top show far outdoes dreary Dale’s Pick Of The Pops. For a start it plays everything in its given week’s Top 20 and not simply the most obvious and tedious “picks” from the chart, thereby providing a fuller and far more satisfying (not to mention much more educational) picture of what was going on in the chart at any particular time. In addition it plays a fair selection of “bubbling under” tracks; when the show visits the sixties with its necessarily shorter hits, this frequently means that the whole Top 40, or at the very least the bulk of it, gets played. For someone like my wife, who grew up in California and then in Toronto and thus didn’t hear much or, in some cases, any of this music at the time, it’s a real education.

Finally, there is always a studio guest who was present in the chart under discussion. I suppose that promotional commitments mean that the show doesn’t have to stick to the “this week in…” format and is therefore free to wander all over the place if it so wishes. This gives the show a freshness which stands in stark contrast to the nullified dullness of Dale. One recent outstanding example was when Martin Fry came in to talk about ABC and go through the singles chart week ending 12 June 1982 (in which ABC were at number four with “The Look Of Love”) – for once, the Gold jingle “Playing the greatest hits of all time” was more than justified since this is one of the greatest ever singles charts.

This week’s guest was Billy Ocean, coming in not to talk about his more prominent (and in my view less impressive) eighties smashes, but the chart of 20 March 1976, in which he was at number three with his debut hit, the smashing “Love Really Hurts Without You.” But, I hear you cry, the song peaked at number two – why not play that chart? Well, as I think will become apparent, this decision may have been taken for aesthetic reasons but apart from a really “meh” patch quite high up this is a hugely impressive list and there’s only one real stinker.

If you want to hear the show itself you can do so by going here (for the next seven days) but for the first time on any of my blogs I’m going to wave the whitish flag and post some YouTube links on here to go with each entry! Whoopee! Here in MC Email Land I regularly receive plaintive pleas from exasperated readers asking me to link my posts with the relevant music but I must admit that I’m very much of the old “let the writing do the talking and the convincing” school of wrinkled music writers and normally assume that any interested parties will hasten to YouTube/Spotify/wherever without my needing to prompt them. Nevertheless in some contexts it does work well and in this case I thought: why not? Spring is here, it’s nearly Easter and the sun’s doing its best to shine! I’m not promising that this will be a regular weekly feature – but if it proves popular enough then I’ll keep it going for as long as energy and interest allow.

So, without further ado, here is the Top 20, in Fluff Freeman-style reverse order, as it stood just over 33 (but not quite thirty-three and a third) years ago…

20. Squeeze Box – The Who




One of the rare examples of good humour from the extremely downbeat and self-aware The Who By Numbers album, with the band really relaxing and letting the ineluctable Cajun/music hall thrust of the song roll over them like a bonnie blue Brighton blanket. Is Roger doing a little Freddie Mercury pastiche halfway through (“Come on and squeeeeeeeeeeze meeeeeeeee!”)?

19. I Love Music – The O’Jays



The O’Jays were surprisingly intermittent visitors to our charts – no “992 Arguments” or “For The Love Of Money” for a start – but “I Love Music” charted twice, in ’76 and again (as a 12-inch) in ’78, and really there are few more joyous songs about the love and power of music as thing in itself and as instrument of personal change and enhancement. John Miles was shortly to bleat pretentiously about music being his first and last love but the O’Jays did it with so much more swing and elegance and far less ostensible fuss.

18. Miss You Nights – Cliff Richard



The return of a voice from the wilderness – his first UK hit single in 18 months and one of his absolute masterpieces; a stillness in its patient mourning which, as Lena said, points instantly and logically to Joy Division. “I’m a man…and cold daylight buys the pride I’d rather sell.” A brilliant feat of organisation by producer Bruce Welch, incorporating Andrew Powell’s majestic but never overwhelming string arrangement, Tony Rivers’ astonishing vocal harmony arrangement – at the song’s icy climax, Cliff is accompanied by Rivers and the Castaways alone – and, above all, Cliff’s own careful, desolated reading of Dave Townsend’s stark words and music, “Miss You Nights” marks the beginning of Cliff’s New Pop golden age which lasted well into 1981.

17. Yesterday – The Beatles



Went very well following Cliff, we thought; earlier thoughts on emotionally immobile mourning, released as a domestic 45 for the first time to spearhead a mass promotional Beatles single reissue programme, marking the point where Beatlemania strangely began to stir and look feasible again. As though paving the way for more radical changes shortly to come.

16. Rain – Status Quo



Ah, bless them. They’ll never change (except very slowly and subtly over several decades) and why should they? A relatively rare Rick Parfitt lead vocal, a Wyatt-esque pronunciation of “rain” throughout and it rocks as reliably as they have ever done.

15. Dat – Pluto Shervington



One of two entries in this list (see also #2 below) which required the publication of an explanatory glossary in Record Mirror; this was the heartwarming tale of devout Rasta Pluto at the market, covertly trying to purchase some pork. Reassuringly hardcore by ’76 reggae-pop crossover standards.

14. Rodrigo’s Guitar Concerto D’Aranjuez – Manuel and his Music of the Mountains



The shortest lived of all number one singles; Johnnie Walker announced it as such on his Tuesday lunchtime show on Radio 1, but it then transpired that the British Market Research Bureau had accidentally missed out an entire day’s worth of sales from their computations. Whoops! By six o’clock that evening the Four Seasons had won back the top slot, Tina Charles was placed second and the hapless, pseudonymous Geoff Love had been demoted to bronze medal position.

I’ve still no idea what or who prompted the success of this interpretation of the most famous bit of music Rodrigo ever composed but don’t mind it at all – Miles and Gil it isn’t but Love’s arrangement is subtle enough to acknowledge the debt that Morricone owed to Rodrigo (among many others), both as composer and arranger. Also you can’t help but respect someone who was able to produce lush touristy string n’ castanet soundtracks (as Manuel) and hard-hitting Afro-funk (as Mandingo) and yet still carry out the day job as Max Bygraves’ musical director (AND do all those scrupulous Great Movie Themes-type albums on which many of us relied in those days).

13. Funky Weekend – The Stylistics



Surprisingly thrusting late hit for the most famous Philly group never actually to have recorded for Philadelphia International – OK, then, argue it out with the (Detroit) Spinners or even the Delfonics – with Van McCoy in his percussive/productive element. They had two Best Of compilations at number one in the album chart over this period and I’m really looking forward to assessing both (in the fullness of time – Then Play Long’s been going nearly eight months and I still haven’t got to the Beatles yet!).

12. Falling Apart At The Seams – Marmalade



Their first UK hit in nearly four years, and also their last. Not many of the original crew left by this time – Junior Campbell and Dean Ford both having long left – but it’s serviceable enough, if not startling, Brit AoR-pop.

11. (Do The) Spanish Hustle – The Fatback Band



I think young Trevor Nelson must have been spending his pocket money this week. It was a real pleasure to hear this great disco-funk track again – full album length at that, fellow cratediggers! – and to be reminded that while in Britain the Fatbacks are best known and loved for eighties perma-dancefloor smash “I Found Lovin’” they were a solidly adroit seventies funk band who at various times (including this one) boasted Mingus alumni George Adams and Don Pullen in their line-up. Terrific trumpet solo by George Williams.

10. It Should Have Been Me – Yvonne Fair



Back in 1962 she was one of James Brown’s backing singers on Live At The Apollo; thereafter she wandered in and out of Motown but never really got the big break she clearly merited. “It Should Have Been Me” was and is a shocking dynamo of a Deep Soul performance which threatens to drown its post-“Rock Your Baby” setting entirely. Sadly Yvonne died in 1994 aged just 51 but this remains an astonishing reminder of just how much more she and her talent deserved.

9. December ’63 (Oh What A Night) – The Four Seasons



No, I hadn’t quite worked out what this song was actually about at that time, either (see also “Squeeze Box” above). But after fourteen years of dutiful chart service they were certainly long overdue a UK number one hit, and even though Frankie Valli doesn’t have very much to do on this one the record’s fundamental good nature sees it through.

8. I Wanna Stay With You – Gallagher and Lyle



Benny and Graham have mostly made their pile writing for and producing others but through ’76-7 enjoyed a brief spell of success as performers. A fine and cleverly constructed piece of AoR-pop with a deceptive mellowness.

7. People Like You And People Like Me – The Glitter Band



Their final hit, and a rather muted end to what wasn’t a bad run of hits; these days more noted for its hello-Rare-Groove-didn’t-expect-to-see-you-here B-side “Makes You Blind.”

6. You See The Trouble With Me – Barry White



The Walrus’ second biggest UK hit after “You’re The First, The Last, My Everything” and eventually a number one in a very strange bootleg karaoke version put out under the Euroname of Black Legend; utterly charming, rhythmically always catching out (there’s rarely a straight 4/4 here) and Barry bewailing loneliness and frustration in an openhearted and approachable way that many of Our Indie Kids Today would do well to match.

5. You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me – Guys ‘N’ Dolls



Not Dusty, but it doesn’t really pretend to be; Dominic Grant shares his Scott Walker-ish co-lead vocal with Julie Forsyth (daughter of Bruce) and there’s a hint of the Dollar revolution to come both in the weirdly echoed harmonies and the vaguely cavernous musical arrangement (not to mention young Trevor himself plucking away on session bass). Certainly not the pitcher’s mound of genius that “There’s A Whole Lot Of Loving” was, though.

4. Save Your Kisses For Me – The Brotherhood of Man



Now it becomes clear; if Gold had played the chart where Sir William was in second place, they would have had to close the show with this, since it soared to number one the following week, stayed there for six agonising weeks and became 1976’s biggest selling single in the UK. If only one reason for the Sex Pistols were needed…

3. Love Really Hurts Without You – Billy Ocean



What a fine debut hit, after years of trying with faithful co-conspirator Ben Findon (and when’s HE going to get his dues?); clearly a Northern Soul/Motown pastiche but done with such verve, panache and obvious enjoyment (that amazing string section unison line/riff) that it’s impossible to resist.

2. Convoy – CW McCall



Is this 1967 come late or the early stirrings of punk or indeed Gen X? Make no mistake, this is a punk record to its chartreuse microbus bootstraps, advocating total anarchy, rolling over the Bears’ feeble defences as assuredly as McGoohan, McKern and Kanner (and Muscat) in their particular truck. Nothing’s going to stop this “trucking” convoy and everything’s going to change for the better. Obama would have been fourteen going on fifteen. Amazing that this hit at all in the UK but I’m more than glad that it did, especially since it means that my wife will get to write about it on her blog!

1. I Love To Love (But My Baby Loves To Dance) – Tina Charles



And finally…well, revolutions come in the places you least expect them, don’t they? Tina Charles and Trevor Horn were an item at this time; they were sharing a flat in Streatham, hoping for greater things, while Trevor was playing bass in her touring band and learning the production ropes from Biddu (and John Howard, and sometimes Tony Meehan) in the studio. Note the relatively sparse but deeply-pitched bass playing on “I Love To Love” before fast-forwarding to “Close (To The Edit)” and all that, but as with so much else in this largely excellent list, pointing the way towards New Pop and the eruptions of greater “WHOOOOO!!!”s that would eventually make their way towards the surface and into our hearts.