Top 100 Songs Of All Time
The intro: 00’00 – 00’39
In December 1987 the Pet Shop Boys released “Always On My Mind”, a cover of the song made famous by Elvis Presley and Willie Nelson. It became the Christmas Number One that year. Almost a year later, they released Introspective, their third album, whose fifth track is a nine-minute version of “Always On My Mind”, including an acid house inspired breakdown that features Neil Tennant rapping. Introspective marks, in Tennant’s words, the end of the band’s “imperial phase”, where virtually anything they tried came off and was commercially successful. It charted at number two, behind U2’s Rattle And Hum.
Sixteen years later, at the end of a Freaky Trigger pub crawl, someone said that “Always On My Mind/In My House” was the best record of all time, and around a dozen of us agreed, or at least did not disagree, and that installed it at number one on our list, a list, we promised, that we would write up for the website over the course of 2005. And so we all went home the merrier for it.
And ten years after that, here we are.
A disco track is second on this list because – Rock Hall of Fame shenanigans notwithstanding – disco is almost universally beloved. If you’re a wedding DJ in a tricky spot, the late 70s will not let you down. Perhaps that was truer in 2004, when we compiled the list, than 2014, but even so a Whig History of Pop – one in which the aim is to create a sense of progress to the present day – might as well start with disco. This stuff is foundational. The intuition of disco’s discontents – like the Comiskey Park crowd who took the Trammps’ chorus on “Disco Inferno” as an order – was that disco was a break point, the end of something they had loved and the beginning of something they would not. This intuition was not entirely wrong.
Its usage in the pinnacle of BBC light entertainment aside – what a record this is! The drum intro is played on the side of a rusty water tank. The noisy brass squawks like Pingu angrily trying to shoo geese off his lawn. The piano is straight out of a Chas’n’Dave pub knees-up, and the end of each chorus line is punctuated by Cher Lloyd’s grandma (subs check this) going ‘Ugh!’ All Shaggy himself needs to do is drawl along for the ride: sleazy, cheesy – easy peasy!
The Levi’s advert that propelled this to #1 has stuck in the memory for many: our hero takes on Pingu’s claymation form, effortlessly pulling motorbike stunts to save the damsel in distress from a burning building. The animated city itself has a similar feel to the spoof-robot-noir of Dick Spanner, as does our greaser’s chiseled chin.
Even the visual jokes are there: the roast pigeons coming back to roost on the telegraph line are exactly as subtle than the giant illuminated “SAVE ELECTRICITY” sign in Spanner’s metropolis. The advert is only a minute long, but still manages to cram in a number of other gags that would have been edited out of Police Squad for being too obvious – a firehose full of holes, a firefighter toasting a sausage on the flames, an oblivious nose-picking kid as one of the bystanders (which incldes someone wearing a Santa outfit for some reason?) and of course, finishing on a toilet joke.
The official video unfortunately contains none of these elements. Hence this can only be the third best song of all time! I wonder what could be at top spot?
Tom wrote about this on Popular here: so here is a project ending couple of thoughts.
“Life is a mystery”. But Madonna doesn’t mean a mystery like the kind Sherlock solves three times a year, or even the kind they solve using CSI in Las Vegas, New York or Miami (with or without sunglasses). What Madonna means here is that “Life is a mystery” sounds, in itself, mysterious. Smart. Sexy. A bit deep. Like a good lyric.
Compare that opening to the main couplet in the chorus: “When you call my name, it’s like a little prayer”. Now this sounds self-aggrandizing, perhaps a little big headed, a typical silly lyric – but of course is factually correct. If you call her name: “Madonna”, it is indeed like a little prayer, it is a little prayer to the Virgin. All of which lies at the heart of this terrific song. It earns its religiosity, by being factually religious and reassuringly secular at the same time.
Some time in the mid-70s, I went on a school trip to the Ludlow Festival, to see (I think) Cymbeline: six kids crammed in the back of a teacher’s little van, five in their late teens actually studying it for A-level, and me, experimenting and showing off. So naturally they were all having fun amiably teasing me, and hit on POP as a topic to trip me up. As a gamble — early version of a dodge I make to this day — I declared my Young Person’s admiration for my dad’s favourite singer: Eartha Kitt. Which paid off — they’d none of them never heard of her, and with no comfy take, to needle or muddle me with, preferred to chuckle a bit at my weird obscure tastes and went back to earnest Sabbath-chat.
Funny thing is, I grew up and through a life writing about and categorising music, exploring and improving histories, and still Eartha feels more like a handy prevarication move than a name to conjure with: someone people kind of know about, for sure, and maybe like (maybe a LOT), but without a set place, or role, or handy symbolic meaning.
“What were the skies like when you were young?”
I think everyone hears a record in their youth which suddenly reveals a whole new world of possibilities. It could be a three minute punk song, where simplicity and lyrical fervour suddenly make the business of writing your own songs seem possible. Maybe hearing the Aphex Twin opened a world of atonal computer music, bedroom techno that saw no instuments at all. Or think of the kid coming home from yet another tedious trumpet lesson hearing the joyous release of Two Tone and looking in a whole new way at his instrument.
It feels a bit wrong, me being the one to write about Dexy’s. I have friends who are much much bigger fans, I have already written about the other Dexy’s track on this list – Come On Eileen. And for a very long time, until I picked up a cheap reissue CD of Searching For The Young Soul Rebels in 2002, Come On Eileen was one of the three things I knew about Dexy’s. The other two being Jocky Wilson Said and the Theme From Brush Strokes. Which for any band would be enough for at least a page in any half decent history of pop.
You see Robin, I’m just searching for the young soul rebels, and I cant find them anywhere. Where have you hidden them?
What to say about this reggae supersmash not already said by Tom, and the army of comment crew enthusiast over on Popular. Ever angle of this amazing one hit wonder has been touched up, a worthy ten and a record that still sounds fresh as light as the day it was birthed upon the charts. The twin guns of confidence and sass bounce this along as such a terrific little pop gem that it really is very very hard to find anything to say except its really, really good.
So instead why not look at the conspiracy theories which swirl around the song. From the sabotage of the BBC Top Of The Pops orchestra to the misspelling of Althea on a record sleeve, its a song with a fair share of odd stories attached to it.
Poor Rosalia, the only Puerto Rican in West Side Story who seems to actually like Puerto Rico. In contrast to Maria, who prances around the bridal shop pretending to be Miss America (despite the competition being open only to members “of good health and of the white race” at the time), and Anita, whose witty and leggy defence of their adopted home is the basis of the catchiest song in the show and indeed FREAKY TRIGGER’S #10 BEST SINGLE OF ALL TIME, Rosalia is OK with Puerto Rico. In the play script she is described as “quietly dressed and not too bright”, which might explain why she doesn’t really have a problem with the Sharks’ homeland (although it does not explain why the costumers for the 2009 revival gave her such stupid hair). But Puerto Rico, according to Rosalia, is kind of okay. You know, it’s pretty. There are some nice tropical breezes and pineapples there. Maybe sometime she’d like to go back and visit.
NOT SO FAST, IMMIGRANT! You’ve made your choice and you can never go back!
[pic: also, in America, girls don't wear ponytails on top of their heads. Join us in the first world, chiquita!]