One of the questions I asked myself as I got halfway through Popular is: have the charts got worse? The answer to that question remains “let’s wait and see” but one reason people who grew into pop before 1984 might think they have is that the nature of the charts seems to have changed. I’d guess that for most of those people the ideal of the charts is as a mirror to all of pop music: if something exciting is happening in pop, it should be reflected in the Top 40. If that doesn’t happen, either the charts are broken, or the thing wasn’t so exciting after all.
But there’s another way the charts work, which is as a mirror to anything in mass culture: cinema, TV, the news, gameshows, sport. Band Aid – and associated releases – weren’t the first example of that by any means, and of course they emerged from within a pop establishment that was showily flexing its muscles as such a thing. But the way in which the charts of 1985 seemed quite so full of post Band Aid releases sets the tone for future hijackings and interruptions of the story, which gradually became as normal as a record going straight in at number one. If you want a division between the first and second “halves” of Popular, there it is.
And for me in 1985, aged 12, this was really the final straw, the moment Band Aid and Live Aid lost me: these intolerable old ninnies capering about for four long weeks, roaring some old song I didn’t care about but could tell had been coarsened and worsened, bullying me into joining their party.
Now, as I approach the age Bowie was in 1985, my tolerance for the two of them acting the goat is much increased: “Dancing In The Street” is vastly improved on video, and watching the two stars flirt and battle is three minutes’ solid entertainment. On record, however, it’s still a stinker.
The obvious comparison is “Under Pressure”, but that was a battle of styles, whereas this is celebrity karaoke given a rocked-up Double Whopper production. Lots of fun to do, for sure, and that comes through to put it above Ali and Chrissie at least. Jagger has much the best of things – he knows the territory, and his bellowing at least stands up to the bombast. Bowie just flaps around, not sure whether to stick to his mannerisms or try and rock out. When I did finally hear the Martha and the Vandellas original, expecting not to think much of it, I was floored by how this boorish hustle was once so full of joy and conviction.