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May 10

Which Decade Is Tops For Pops? Round 2: the Number 9s.

Which Decade Is Tops For Pops74 comments • 1,833 views

Historical background note: Phase One of “Which Decade”, which ran for seven years on my old blog, was nearly always timed to coincide with my birthday week in mid-February. So I’m glad that Phase Two has shifted to May – partly because February’s charts tend to suffer from the back end of the post-Christmas dip, but mainly because they rarely capture the musical essence of the forthcoming year, which usually takes a little longer to define itself.

Looking at Monday’s opening selections, all of which possess at least some discernible measure of merit, it looks as if the decision might have been justified. But as we count our way up our six Top Tens, will quality prevail? Only one way to find out! Let’s wheel out the Number Nines.

1960: Lonnie Donegan – My Old Man’s A Dustman (video) (Tom’s post on Popular)
1970: Creedence Clearwater Revival – Travelin’ Band (video)
1980: Hot Chocolate – No Doubt About It (video)
1990: Heart – All I Wanna Do is Make Love To You (video)
2000: Sweet Female Attitude – Flowers (video)
2010: Professor Green – I Need You Tonight (feat. Ed Drewett) (video)


(Download the MP3 medley)

He might have made his name as the King of Skiffle, but twenty-one chart entries down the line, Lonnie Donegan had begun to sound a lot more music hall – doubtless to the dismay of the purists, but when did chart pop ever give two hoots about what they thought?

Fittingly, the song was recorded in front of a live audience – and I’m proud to report that the venue in question was the Gaumont cinema (later renamed the Odeon) in my home town of Doncaster. (I’d love to know whether my dear old Dad knew anyone in the audience, but I never thought to ask.) Twelve years later, Chuck Berry deployed the same tactic with “My Ding-A-Ling”, which was recorded live in Coventry – and eight years after that, a live recording at the very same venue topped the charts for The Specials. But I digress.

What bugs me the most about “Dustman” – and Lord knows, there’s a long enough list to choose from – is the way that it so blatantly signposts its punchlines, as both performer and audience build up to crescendos of forced mirth that explode over the song like a salvo of sneezes. Perhaps that was the tradition – but oh, how grating it sounds to modern ears.

There is one moment that does tickle me, though, and you’ll hear it on the MP3 medley. It comes at the end of the intro, when a lone audience member shrieks with laughter at the word “flipping”. Ooh-er missus! Sounds a bit RUDE! I’m so glad it’s not 1960 anymore.

And speaking of the bafflingly dated: what was it about the amiable but unremarkable bar-room boogie of Creedence Clearwater Revival‘s “Travelin’ Band” that sent it scuttling into so many Top Tens around the world? I’ve nothing against amiable bar-room boogie per se – although I prefer its toughed-up mid-Seventies pub rock mutations, from the likes of Eddie & the Hot Rods and Dr Feelgood – but as an actual song, “Travelin’ Band” is slight stuff indeed.

Not to mention derivative; its similarity to Little Richard’s “Good Golly Miss Molly” gave rise to a threatened lawsuit, which was settled out of court. Can’t say I noticed the resemblance myself, but my partner spotted it instantly, and without any prompting.

The bafflement continues! I’ve never fully understood how Hot Chocolate managed to sustain their hit-making career for so long, notching up twenty-five hits over fourteen years, given their seeming lack of any identifiable fan base. I’ve never met a Hot Chocolate fan, and I’m not convinced they ever existed in any significant numbers. Did any form of anticipatory buzz surround their releases, or were they only ever as good as their last hit, perpetually having to prove themselves anew with every single? And if this was the case, then did this free them from the pressures of stylistic consistency, as their eclectic run of hits would suggest?

Here in May 1980, we find them flirting with sci-fi lite, like The Real Thing (“Can You Feel The Force?”) and Sarah Brightman (“I Lost My Heart To A Starship Trooper”) before them. Aliens and spaceships and related extra-terrestrial matters were a big deal at the time (the first Star Trek movie was still big at the box office, and The Empire Strikes Back was due out at the end of the month) and so the band picked its moment well – but once again, I’m fair itching to type the “dated” word.

Perhaps you’ve just caught me in a particularly jaded mood, but my memory of “No Doubt About It” – as a burbling, surging disco-pop curio – fails to match the somewhat strained and limping track which I hear today.

Oh crap, it’s a bloody power ballad. This isn’t going to lift my spirits one little bit, I fear. And yet, and yet… despite a long-held and unyielding aversion to the form, I find myself warming to Heart‘s hoary old schlock in a most peculiar way. Perhaps it’s the Glee effect, as I enjoyed the show’s reworking of Heart’s first UK hit “Alone” – very much against my better judgement, but that’s Glee for you – or perhaps I’m finally on the verge of shedding an unhelpful prejudice. That said, I do feel that the song would be improved by an uplifting Eurodance/NRG cover version – but wouldn’t they all?

(UPDATE: I have found an uplifting Eurodance/NRG cover version! But it isn’t very good! Oh well!)

But my main suspicion with Heart – and I have much the same problem with Starship – is that they were never really committed to the genre in which they found themselves operating, choosing commerical pragmatism over artistic preference. So it’s interesting to find this quote from Ann Wilson, who sings the track, in the liner notes for a 1995 live album: “Actually we had sworn off it because it kind of stood for everything we wanted to get away from […] but there was a lot of pressure on us to do the song at the time.” If that’s the case, then all credit to her for turning in a credible performance, cast in the role of baby-hungry hitchhiker-picker-upper. (No, I never listened that closely to the lyrics before, either. Surprising, isn’t it?)

Happily, there’s nothing remotely dated about Sweet Female Attitude‘s lone hit, which sounds as every bit as life-affirmingly glorious today as it did ten years ago. One of UK Garage’s finest ever moments, this is difficult for me to talk about without defaulting to dribbling gush – but I love its freshness, its urgency, its drive, its innocence, its spontaneity, and most of all its overwhelming sense of joy. I also like the contrast between the roughness of the rhythm track and the unforced sweetness of the vocals, and the way that the tumbling vocal cut-ups propel the track forwards.

Of the various mixes, the Sunship Edit was the one which got all the airplay, and frankly it’s the only one you need. Six points all round, then? Please don’t let me down.

Although I’m banking on unanimous love for “Flowers”, I’m a good deal less certain as to which way you’ll bend for our 2010 selection. On the evidence of “I Need You Tonight” (for I am a stranger to his earlier work), Professor Green is the sort of chirpy cheeky cockney chappie to whom many of you might well take violent exception – but I find myself mostly won over by his shtick.

The track is a cutely turned comic fable of come-uppance, with Green cast as the player who gets played right back. And “play” is the operative word here; this is dating viewed purely as a game, which leaves Green strolling away with a shrug and a grin and a can’t-blame-a-boy-for-trying attitude. The phone conversation at the start of the track is nicely done, as is Green’s disclaimer at the end – and while nothing particularly clever is achieved with the INXS sample that runs all the way through the track, the riff is still strong enough to withstand the repetition. Sure, it’s more Just Jack than Jay-Z – but there’s room for that, isn’t there?

Over to you, then. Kelis and The Undertones have pulled decisively ahead of the pack in Round One, with Steve Lawrence and The Move still battling it out for last place – but will this be a tighter race? Does Lonnie make you laugh? Is there room in your bar room for Creedence’s boogie? Are you that Hot Chocolate fan? Do power ballads float your boat? Does 2-step make you quickstep? (Look, it’s been a LONG DAY and I have a HANGOVER.) Or has Professor Green mapped your personal emotional landscape with almost unbearable accuracy? Tell me, do!

(Note: As before, I’ll keep a running total of the scores in the first comment of this thread.)

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