Jan 09

SHAKIN’ STEVENS – “Green Door”

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#483, 1st August 1981

“I don’t know what they’re doing but they laugh a lot”. As a kid I had no great knowledge of speakeasies and after-hours clubs, so I projected a different – perhaps more glamorous – meaning onto the song, drawn from a childhood reading Tolkein, Nesbit and endless books of fairytales. The Green Door, quite clearly set into a hillside, or visible only on Beltane Eve, or found on an old street not marked on any map, led into the Otherworld, and the mocking laughter was obviously that of elves or boggarts. With this reading firm in my mind I could sympathise greatly with Shakey’s frustration – though I thought he was probably too old for this kind of adventure.

Jan 09

THE SPECIALS – “Ghost Town”

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#482, 11th July 1981

When Graham Linehan and Arthur Matthews picked “Ghost Town” for an unforgettable appearance in Father Ted, they apparently wanted the worst record imaginable to play at a disco. But there’s actually a lot of dancing in the song, which knots its competing jostle of ideas together with an incisive – and wholly struttable – mid-tempo groove. The reason you wouldn’t dance to “Ghost Town” is that the floor’s already full – of fighting, but also of spectres. The record is full of crescendos and horn vamps that beckon you to dance and then break off, plunging the song back into shadow. And when the dance does kick off you’d rather not be part of it – those horrible shrieking backing vocals are the sound of a danse macabre, a skeleton skank conducted by the sleeve’s bony pianist.

Jan 09

MICHAEL JACKSON – “One Day In Your Life”

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#481, 27th June 1981

For a fortunate few acts – The Beatles, ABBA, Westlife – the UK #1 lists offer a fair representation of a full career arc. For many others the public at least have the decency to pick a highlight. For some, their one or two Number Ones come too early or too late to show an act’s full range. But only in the case of Michael Jackson do British record-buyers simultaneously gift an artist with a large haul of #1s and miss out most of what made him a superstar. If you showed the average pop fan a list of Jackson singles and said “Pick the chart-toppers” I suspect they’d get things spectacularly wrong.

Jan 09

SMOKEY ROBINSON – “Being With You”

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#480, 13th June 1981

The problem with reviewing this kind of ultra-soft soul music isn’t simply that it’s functional; it’s not designed for solo listening. Either it’s music to play when you’re with the one you love, or it’s music to play when you’re thinking about being with them. If you’re concentrating on the music, in other words, you’re doing it wrong, and if it demands your attention, it’s doing it wrong. That fits a song presenting Smokey as someone so transported by love the rest of the world becomes a mildly annoying distraction. But it still leaves “Being With You” as one of the wispiest of hits, plenty of quiet but not enough storm.

Jan 09

ADAM AND THE ANTS – “Stand And Deliver”

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#479, 9th May 1981

When it comes to pop, “style over substance” is an enduring criticism: almost as powerful as it is dumb. So often pop plays a shell game with the ideas – using style as a mask or code to make sure the right people get the substance; or using the excuse of artistry to get away with the most outrageous leaps in style. “Stand And Deliver” is a stylist’s manifesto in lyric and sound, and in the record’s worst line – “Deep meaning philosophies where only showbiz loses” – Adam buys into the binary himself and betrays a certain fretful conservatism. Why not turn philosophies into showbiz, like the rest of the New Pop was doing? (It hadn’t done the Beatles or McLaren any harm, after all)

Jan 09

BUCKS FIZZ – “Making Your Mind Up”

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#478, 18th April 1981

In some ways Bucks Fizz’ Eurovision triumph is pop’s equivalent of England’s 1966 World Cup win. It encouraged a certain complacency in the victorious nation, who began to convince themselves that not only was the competition eminently winnable but that this famous victory had established a formula for more. For passion, grit and English physicality read bubblegum, camp and dollybirds having their skirts whipped off. There the parallels break down. The subsequent failure to win the World Cup has become something festering, a cultural fixation in its own right that Popular will collide with in due course. Not winning the Eurovision Song Contest has only recently started to niggle in English minds, and the response is often that it’s not worth winning.

Dec 08

SHAKIN’ STEVENS – “This Ole House”

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#477, 28th March 1981

The last time “This Ole House” came up, a commenter on ILM quite rightly pointed out what I somehow hadn’t twigged – that it’s a song about dying. Of all songs on that theme, it’s surely one of the most stoical in its way – a joyful “whatever” in the teeth of advancing decrepitude. Liveliness was about all Shakin’ Stevens had going for him, but goodness he worked it.

Shaky sidesteps new wave and new pop and reaches back to the rock’n’roll revival that played such a part in the mid-70s’ charts. That had a cabaret tinge and so does he, but there’s an energy in his pastiche that – at this stage anyway – keeps it bearable. His other great advantage over fellow revivalists was knowing how to present that energy on video – on the clip for “This Ole House” he’s in perpetual motion and as the song cuts from room to room to roof it’s like Shaky’s dancing with the house itself.

Dec 08

ROXY MUSIC – “Jealous Guy”

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#476, 14th March 1981

A band who helped define the 70s cover a song from the 70s by a man who barely outlived the 70s – and yet the cool precision of “Jealous Guy” makes it a recording utterly of the 1980s. The record’s attention to clinical detail seems to will compact discs into being: every instrument is perfectly, unhurriedly placed. Synthesiser washes like marble tiles; thick brushstrokes of guitar; the thread of whistling that plays the song out – “Jealous Guy” is immaculate.

Dec 08


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#475, 21st February 1981

The extended artist credit is a giveaway: Aussie origins or no, this is a music hall number – perhaps the last such to get to No.1, complete with comical national caricature and audience participation. On record, the all-join-in section demolishes the song’s momentum, turning it into a chore. On screen, blackboard at the ready, Dolce made more sense, and at the time “Shaddap You Face” was a welcome relief after two months of piety. But almost anything would have been.

People upset that Ultravox were kept from the top by this have a good case: for a start, “Vienna” is a great deal funnier. The laughs in Joe Dolce arrive from i. the deathless comic value of a mock Italian accent, ii. the joy of yelling “Shaddap-a you face!”. I can vouch for ii, having submitted it to continuous testing that spring, but it’s not a gag whose appeal has crossed the gulf of years.

Dec 08


FT + Popular58 comments • 3,092 views

#474, 7th February 1981

A basis purely in sales makes the UK chart faster-moving than playlist-led equivalents, and more responsive to the pleasures of any niche large enough to hit its thresholds. It’s a combination of that and the BBC’s dominant media position that has made caring about it such a British disease. But its calibrations are fragile – the Top 40 is easily knocked off-course by events. It would take a few more years for the mechanism to appear by which non-pop news and the charts could link up: Lennon’s death was a massive story but also still a pop event, so it was pop which felt its impact most. To a fan, the procession of Lennoniana at the top end of the charts was dignified and just. To a kid who’d only just started to fall for pop, it was like the Top 40 was simply broken: week upon week of this hairy guy wandering round a big white house.