Hello! I’m Mike Atkinson, and over the course of the next three or four weeks, I’ll be overseeing an IMPORTANT EXPERIMENT IN PARTICIPATIVE DEMOCRACY, right here on Freaky Trigger. If you’ve ever visited my old blog during the month of February, then you might be familiar with the procedures – but with a new decade underway and the old blog sinking into disrepair, it felt like the right time to move operations to a new home (and arguably its natural home), and to start the process all over again from scratch.
If you’re new to the game, then this is what’s going to happen. I’ll be taking you on a guided, step-by-step excursion through the Top Ten UK singles from this week in 1960, 1970, 1980, 1990, 2000 and 2010. Today, we’ll be looking at the singles at Number Ten in each chart. In two days’ time (all being well), we’ll examine the Number Nines… and so on, until we reach the Number Ones.
I’ll be providing YouTube links throughout, as well as a brief memory-jogging MP3 medley, containing roughly thirty seconds from each of that day’s six tracks.
At the end of each post, you will be invited to rank the six tracks in descending order of preference. I’ll be totting up your votes (using an inverse points system, but let’s not sweat the details just yet) and providing running totals at regular intervals.
As we step through the chart positions together – day by day, place by place, from the Number Tens to the Number Ones – your scores will be accumulated into running totals for each decade. So when we get to the end of the exercise, we will have SCIENTIFICALLY PROVEN which of our six decades – the Sixties, the Seventies, the Eighties, the Nineties, the Noughties or, um, this one – contains the GREATEST POP MUSIC OF ALL TIME.
Now, if you’re thinking that the whole exercise sounds a bit arbitrary – for how can ten songs in one given chart, in one given year, be in any way representative of a whole decade? – then fret not, for next May we do the whole exercise all over again, looking at the Top Tens for 1961, 1971, 1981 etc etc. And then we combine this year’s scores with next year’s scores, and the scores from the year after that, and so on for the next ten years (oh yes!), until we have accumulated grand totals for each decade. So think of today’s inaugural post as merely the first tentative step on a Grand Quest for ABSOLUTE POP TRUTH.
Excited, much? Then let’s press on with Round One, in which we look at this week’s Number Tens from the past six decades.
1960: Steve Lawrence – Footsteps (video)
1970: The Move – Brontosaurus (video)
1980: The Undertones – My Perfect Cousin (video)
1990: The Family Stand – Ghetto Heaven (video)
2000: MJ Cole – Crazy Love (video)
2010: Kelis – Acapella (video)
And so to my unshakeable earworm of the past four weeks, courtesy of Steve Lawrence. Every time my thoughts turn to the Which Decade project, my mental jukebox invariably cues up the opening refrain of “Footsteps”, whether or not I wish to be reminded of it – and now (hah!) it’s your turn to be similarly plagued.
What strikes me first about “Footsteps” (once I’ve accepted its presence in my brain for the next hour or so) is its musical simplicity. The repeated ascending modulation of its opening refrain sounds a bit like something you might have been given for piano practice, reminding me in turn that sheet music sales would still have been a significant factor in the popularity of many hit songs. Easy to score, easy to learn, easy to play – but to modern ears, does the easiness merely translate as triteness?
That aside, what strikes me most about “Footsteps” is the way that the rinky-dink backing vocals almost threaten to upstage the lead singer. We got this a lot in the Tin Pan Alley pop of the early Sixties – Helen Shapiro’s “Walking Back To Happiness” immediately springs to mind – and I’m a sucker for such campy charms. Close your eyes, and try to imagine a chorus line of chickens from The Muppet Show parading across the screen, clucking away in unison, or perhaps Eric Morecambe and Ernie Wise, vamping behind their special guest of the week, or… OK, suit yourselves. Shall we move on?
Ten years on, has The Riff supplanted The Tune as chart pop’s compositional foundation stone? The Move have cropped up twice before on Which Decade – with “Fire Brigade” two years ago, and with “Blackberry Way” last year – but they’ve never sounded quite this heavy before.
Well, I say heavy – and in 1970, at the tender age of eight, I certainly thought that The Move were as heavy (and indeed as hairy) as heavy could possibly get – but in truth, this is a pop approximation of “heavy”, and not a very able or convincing one at that. Granted, the riff has all the lumbering qualities of the titular prehistoric beast itself – but really, that’s the problem. Where a good riff should soar, this riff can only plod. There’s a bit of an attempt at a “freak-out” near the end, but one senses that the band’s hearts aren’t fully in it. Even more than “Blackberry Way”, this feels like a stylistic excursion rather than a statement of musical belief – and we can’t have that from our hairy heavy rockers, can we?
Just as I have finished waffling on about the dwindling simplicity of early 60s tunesmanship, up pop The Undertones, ready to challenge my assertions. After all, tunes don’t come much simpler than “My Perfect Cousin” – against which “Footsteps” looks positively baroque.
Thus did the post-punk pendulum swing, affording exposure to those acts who could best make a virtue of the New Simplicity – and of those acts, there were few better exponents than Feargal Sharkey’s bunch. But most winningly of all, “My Perfect Cousin” is rooted in the everyday realities of its audience, depicting an instantly recognisable slice of life as it was actually being led.
And best of all from my perspective, “My Perfect Cousin” describes – with near-faultless accuracy, right down to the bloody Christian name, if you please – the affectionately competitive dynamic between my life partner of five years’ hence and his younger cousin from the house next door. He thinks that I’m a cabbage, because I hate University Challenge… like, how did these people KNOW?
Although obliged to put The Family Stand‘s original version on the MP3 medley, as it was the only version I could legally source (for yes, every 30-second snippet has been acquired without recourse to piratical means), my memories of “Ghetto Heaven” are all centred around the superior Jazzie B/Nellee Hooper remix, which was also the lead track on both the 7-inch and 12-inch versions. (You’ll also find this version on the YouTube link.)
Following Soul II Soul’s massive success in 1989, their downtempo, tough-but-mellow signature sound was ubiquitous for much of 1990. Or at least it was in our house, as I made it my personal mission to snaffle up every last mutation thereof – yea, even unto dodgy cash-ins such as the cover of “Loving You” by Massivo featuring Tracy. (I’m not proud. But such were the times.) But “Ghetto Heaven” was always a class apart, so it has been great to dig the 12″ out of the attic and languish once more within its smoking groove.
All of which leads us nicely into the equally classy mellowness of MJ Cole‘s track, which exemplifies the smoother, more song-based, more overtly soulful, and arguably more aspirational end of the 2-step/UK Garage spectrum.
Touching on my original thesis for a moment, there’s an effortless intricacy to the construction of “Crazy Love” which – in my opinion – places it far in advance of the likes of “Footsteps”, suggesting that pop’s overall progression might indeed have been an upwards one. And I could never quite get a purchase on that skittering 2-step rhythm, whose lack of obvious four-to-the-floor kick came as such sweet relief in an age which had become suffocated by the diminishing returns of Ibiza Trance. (There may be more examples of this to follow, by the way – but let’s not indulge in spoilers.)
And to close today’s entries, let’s go out with an absolute walloping belter. Back in the UK Top Ten for the first time in three years, Kelis sounds fully, thrillingly contemporary once again, with a track that has all the forward-thinking, shock-of-the-new impact of “Milkshake” and “Caught Out There” before it. An electronic club banger about motherhood, you say? Well, why ever not? For if there’s one thing I like better than a forward-thinking, shock-of-the-new electro club banger, it’s a forward-thinking, shock-of-the-new and emotionally affecting electro club banger.
Over to you, then. Take a good listen to these six tracks. Take several good listens, if you need to. And then, in the comments box, please arrange them in descending order of preference, i.e. starting with your favourite and working down.
When voting, please remember these three golden rules.
1) No omissions!
2) No tied places!
3) As much as you are able, please vote on merit, rather than being overly swayed by nostalgic generational predispositions!
Have fun! (Oh, and rest assured: voting for each round stays open right the way through to the end of the whole extended caper, so there’s no immediate hurry.)