(#350: 1 August 1987, 4 weeks; 5 September 1987, 1 week)
Track listing: I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me) (Whitney Houston)/I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me) (Aretha Franklin & George Michael)/If You Let Me Stay (Terence Trent D’Arby)/Lean On Me (Club Nouveau)/The Slightest Touch (Five Star)/Serious (Donna Allen)/I Want Your Sex (George Michael)/Respectable (Mel & Kim)/Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now (Starship)/Weak In The Presence Of Beauty (Alison Moyet)/Let’s Dance (Chris Rea)/Is This Love (Whitesnake)/Big Love (Fleetwood Mac)/Coming Around Again (Carly Simon)/Personal Touch (Errol Brown)/You’re The Voice (John Farnham)/La Isla Bonita (Madonna)/Under The Boardwalk (Bruce Willis)/Living In A Box (Living In A Box)/Ordinary Day (Curiosity Killed The Cat)/To Be With You Again (Level 42)/The Game (Echo and The Bunnymen)/April Skies (The Jesus and Mary Chain)/Incommunicado (Marillion)/(Something Inside) So Strong (Labi Siffre)/No More The Fool (Elkie Brooks)/Hold Me Now (Johnny Logan)/Can’t Be With You Tonight (Judy Boucher)/Wishing I Was Lucky (Wet Wet Wet)/Shattered Dreams (Johnny Hates Jazz)/Goodbye Stranger (Pepsi & Shirlie)/Star Trekkin’ (The Firm)
This was the last Hits compilation to top the charts. The series never managed to establish itself as a brand strong enough to compete with Now. Although the seventh and eighth volumes were arguably the strongest (and will be mentioned in future dispatches), the truce was over and both were trounced by the next two volumes of Now. The question is then left, as with all such compilations, what, if anything, the compiler(s) intended. In some areas it fulfils the traditional compilation function of acting as a trailer for artists’ individual albums – no less than eleven of these thirty-two songs appear (albeit not necessarily in the same form) on previous and/or future TPL entries – and in others it is an assemblage of the different ways in which 1987 mainstream pop viewed the world.
Whitney (A Slight Return)
Two additional things I should have mentioned in relation to “I Wanna Dance With Somebody”; the castanet fillings in the first verse which date back beyond rock ‘n’ roll and turn up again and again over the decades, and Whitney’s high voice at fadeout, like a happy, fleeing, escaped bird free to enjoy the sky once more.
Otherwise, it should be noted that the distinguished, underachieving cast of Whitney also included Chuck Jackson (lyricist of “Where Do Broken Hearts Go?”), Gerry Goffin (lyricist of “You’re Still My Man”) and Jim Gilstrap (one of the backing singers). The main saxophone soloist was Kenny G. Once Whitney had worked with Archie Shepp, and I still regard her career as the equivalent of Aretha being marooned on Mitch Miller’s Columbia with no Atlantic Records to offer deliverance.
Aretha & George
At the time I was faintly irked that what seemed to me to be essentially by-the-book exercise in eccht-soul - co-written by Mr By-The-Book himself, Simon Climie, half of Climie-Fisher – was (and remains) Aretha's only British number one single to date. Worse, the only other contender even to come close, "I Say A Little Prayer," peaked at number four. Those who imagine the Queen Of Soul to have scored an unending fusillade of top ten smashes in the UK are in for a sober awakening on examination of her actual chart record; most of her hits typically made it to the mid-regions of the chart and no further. This raises a fear of Aretha's rawness not quite being "pop," and pop similarly being wary of Aretha, at least in a Britain which seemed to prefer their "soul" singers homely, British and preferably white.
Although Aretha's important work was more or less done by 1974, her revival took hold in the mid-'80s; Green's prophecy of "Aretha" coming back in inverted commas as a signifier of - you guessed it - Real Soul seems to have been fully fulfilled. The Eurythmics collaboration "Sisters Are Doin' It For Themselves" is one of the most shameful disgraces in all of pop; Franklin forced to slum it in a gaudy mockery of her uncompromising demand for "Respect" a generation previously. But it worked in terms of bringing her back into the marketplace; apart from isolated sparks like 1982's "Jump To It," Aretha's career had dived into a troubled nothingness - debilitated by agoraphobia and legal disputes, she missed the chance to sing on "We Are The World." However, 1985's Who's Zoomin' Who? album, though perfunctory and plastic, was a great success, and that lay the ground for the George Michael collaboration; sad to say, from a commercial perspective Aretha in the mid-'80s probably needed George more than vice versa.
The recording of the song, as well as the video, went well enough; George, understandably thrilled at the prospect of working with Aretha, would gladly have sung the contents of that day's Woking And District Evening Chronicle. Aretha barely knew who George was but seemed to like him. In the video they symbolically perform before a huge video screen displaying monochrome footage of them in their younger years - another indication of signifiers outranking signified.
Nonetheless, time and experience have convinced me that it’s actually not such a dull record. Aretha outsings George with some immensity - hear her voice focus and bite on "Consumed by the shadows" (as though she is about to swallow the shadows) and "I was crippled emotionally" - but George himself displays evident boyish enthusiasm. The song is an agreeable Marvin and Tammi love-crosses-all-obstacles update. The trouble is that, despite the theme of two lost souls finally coming together, it is clearly impossible to believe in 42-year-old Aretha and 23-year-old George as a couple; the relationship is palpably one of mother and son, or teacher and pupil. The explosive "HOW COULD" of the line "How could you treat me so bad?" in the second verse of "I Never Loved A Man" - which you will not be surprised to hear was not a hit in the Britain of 1967 – might not have been an unfair question to ask the British public at some point.
They were from Sacramento, and were put together by Jay King following the break-up of Timex Social Club, who had been responsible for one of 1986’s best singles in “Rumors.” The name – French for New Club – was preferred to the original choice of Jet Set. Their “Lean On Me” is a pretty loyal reading of the Withers original slammed up to date by a crunchy electro Go-Go rhythm track, but the parent album Life, Love & Pain is better than you think; “Jealousy” is the answer song to “Rumors,” while “Why You Treat Me So Bad” later became the foundation of Luniz’ “I Got 5 On It.”
“The Slightest Touch” sounds remixed and polished up from its Silk And Steel status, but the initial promise of a 1981 Duran Duran tribute is scotched by the helplessly non-persuasive singing and the song itself.
“Serious” was never much more than Fisher-Price Janet Jackson, but Allen, from Key West, Florida (but raised in Tampa), gives it an agreeably serious thwack with her cunningly determined vocal. In case you’re wondering, the “you sure make me feel like loving you” turned up again as a sample on Strike’s 1995 top five hit “U Sure Do.”
…which is how the puritanical and hypocritical BBC billed the song (see also “Healing” by Marvin Gaye). George sounds greedy, impatient and eager – and in the middle of 1987, to produce such an aggressively pro-sex record was an act of some bravery – but, like Mick Hucknall, he also believes in monogamy and the no-sex-without-love way of things (as the video demonstrates). It sounds like he’s listened to recent Prince, and somewhat less recent Bee Gees, but it was a pleasure to hear it again here. However, we will be getting to the “full” version – and addressing the question of what does a teen idol do when faced with the requirement to grow up – when we look at the song’s parent album.
Finally, emerging out from what was in danger of becoming a suffocating museum of pop music, we have a number one which actually sounds like 1987. While Stock/Aitken/Waterman always seemed to pull out an extra stop with the Appleby sisters, the cheerfully brutalist futurism of "Respectable" still comes as a much-needed slap of freezing water in the face to wash away the mould of respect and dignity.
"Respectable" doesn't quite match “Showing Out,” but its potent, carnal zipping and unzipping of keyboards together with its crashing breaks and rollercoasters of vocal cut-ups ("Take take TAKE take taytaytay taytay TAKE take") is like being thrown from one end of a rainbow to another. The SAW team keep the lyrics minimalist and sharp ("Explanations are complications," "Conversation is interrogation") as well as defiant ("Like us, hate us, but you'll never change us"), and the instrumental break with its Marshall Jefferson synth riff and vocal cackles is exhilarating.
Much of the power of "Respectable" is down to mixmaster Phil Harding, who was also responsible (together with, some say, SAW themselves undercover) for producing the hardcore Essex industrial-electro collective Nitzer Ebb ("Join In The Chant," released about a month later, is the exact obverse of "Respectable"). But the record also sets an important precedent; with its unapologetically proud stance and fuck-you attitude – it is actually SAW’s declaration of revolt and individuality, and the words of the chorus stem from a full-page advertisement that the team placed in Music Week - it is the clearest antecedent to the Spices and Saints and Alouds who would follow in their path, and perhaps also a ground-breaker in British girl group pop; I have tried hard to think about precedents to Mel and Kim, but in terms of girl groups, they had previously tended to be demure, homely and unthreatening - the Caravelles, the Paper Dolls, the Pearls, the Nolans; an extension of pre-rock memes. Only Bananarama, who made a point of co-authoring their SAW-produced hits (Waterman later described them, albeit not pejoratively, as the hardest act he'd ever had to work with), stand as a workable comparison point (the post-punk explosion of Slits and Raincoats and Girls At Our Best being a parallel, though not quite pop, phenomenon; but hey, what about Bostin’ Steve Austin by Fuzzbox?). However, the slipstream of subsequent girl pop is very much in Mel and Kim's wake. Their sole album, F.L.M., did very well – although there were clouds on the horizon to which we will return. However, "Respectable," in demonstrating absolutely no respect for history, dignity or respect itself, helped steer pop back into its future.
Taken from the abysmal 1987 romcom Mannequin, in which Andrew McCarthy builds a dummy which turns into Kim Cattrall (and a young, wary James Spader keeping his countenance in the background), "Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now" - not to be confused with Samantha Fox's "Nothing's Gonna Stop Me Now," which was in the top ten at the same time - is the archetypal slushy, bombastic AoR song suitable for such glossy sub-entertainment, composed by time-serving pros Diane Warren and Albert Hammond, and there would be little point in going any deeper into its shallow pond of artistry were it not for the immense sorrow of the knowledge of whom Starship once were.
Perhaps the saddest moment of the whole song (and its video) is the point where Grace Slick enters with her Morticia Addams cackle of "Let 'em say we're cra-ZAY!" and does that regrettable leer and finger-twirl at the camera. There are two ways of interpreting this; either Grace is signalling to us: "Hey, we know this is shit, but we need a hit, and y'know, underneath the gloss it's still us!" or (the worse and likelier option) they are trying to shanghai us into thinking that nothing has changed, that this is the way Jefferson Airplane would eventually have flown in any case (almost needless to say, Slick, presumably horrified that she had become what she once beheld, quit the band).
Not surprisingly, you will search the archives of the British singles chart for "White Rabbit" and "Somebody To Love" in vain. The strangeness and stridency of the 1967 Grace Slick, however, did help lay the path for the Siouxsie Siouxs and Kristin Hershes of subsequent decades; and I suppose it's a comfort of sorts that twenty-eight years after "Delicate Cutters," Hersh has not approached Warren for a singalong moneyspinner. But to see Slick, Kantner and Balin prostitute themselves so gladly on the Reaganite catwalk - "We Built This City" may have been a terrible record, but at least bore the ghost of rebellion with its "corporation games" - is like viewing reformed Communists being paraded at bayonet point before the cameras, forced to recant their past ideological "sins." Thankfully, this was about as bad as 1987 number ones got.
The NME put Raindancing at number one, but from subsequent interviews it’s clear that Moyet didn’t enjoy making the record at all, and I think the intent was to airbrush everything that was individual and special about her with a view to catering to the baser needs of international Top 40 radio programmers. Actually, “Weak” isn’t that bad a song, or at least wasn’t when its authors Floy Joy recorded it, but Moyet abhorred it and is clearly sleepwalking through her performance.
Just so you know and I don’t have to tell you again; I am a huge Chris Rea fan, and if you can’t deal with that, other music websites are available. His music is intelligent, irresistible and warm like a pair of rock slippers, and “Let’s Dance” was his first really noticeable hit single. The music is jaunty and positive, with the subtlest of reggae touches, and Rea’s vocals and guitar are demonstrably different from, and more pleasing than, Mark Knopfler’s. The theme? The world is falling to bits, but what the hell – let’s enjoy ourselves anyway. We’ll be getting back to the man from Middlesbrough.
Their big power ballad (but not their biggest hit; that’s still to come) and originally intended for Tina Turner to sing. Cue David Coverdale’s long mane, Tawny Kitaen posing on a car in the video (as per all Whitesnake videos of the period – but she did go on to marry Mr Coverdale). All very agreeable and stops just short of being Reaganrock.
Tango In The Night is yet to come (though came out in April 1987 – it was a slow burner) but “Big Love” offers object lessons to the Starships of that world how to survive from the sixties, but with dignity. Lindsey Buckingham sounds like an especially pained Orbison, the building blocks of pointillistic backing vocals indicate a familiarity with Art of Noise – but the final, dread-filled build-up and cutoff, powered by Mick Fleetwood’s inimitable rolls, confirm that, although there are different voices at the front, this is recognisably the same group which recorded “Oh Well.”
An apt title, since in Britain Carly Simon seemed to average one top ten hit every five years. But this was from the rather dark Mike Nichols/Nora Ephron comedy Heartburn, with Meryl Streep, Jack Nicholson and others, and reaches back to the Simon of “That’s The Way I’ve Always Heard It Should Be.” She’s at home, part of the family, reaching middle age, and like Bonnie Tyler in “Total Eclipse” she’s collapsing into pieces (“So don’t mind if I fall apart/There’s more room in a broken heart”) – paying the grocer, fixing the toaster, breaking a window, screaming a lullaby. “I believe in love” she sings, over and over, in a manner that suggests what she is caught in isn’t love.
Why didn’t Errol Brown’s solo career take off? The utter unremarkability of “Personal Touch,” a song written by its singer but with all the life produced out of it, and not much of a hit, is a clue, but the fact was that few of the millions who had kept Hot Chocolate in the charts for almost a decade and a half associated the name “Errol Brown” with “the guy out of Hot Chocolate.” They knew who they were and who he was, but not necessarily what he was called; Brown has admitted having the same problem with UB40 and Ali Campbell. Then again, performing Lennon’s “Imagine” at a Conservative Party election rally shortly before “Personal Touch”’s release probably didn’t help either.
Australia’s Cliff Richard (although he was originally from Dagenham), Farnham has been a superstar in his adopted homeland for fully fifty years but “You’re The Voice” is the only hit he has had in Britain. A fine hit it is too, with lyrics by ex-Procol Harum right-hand man Keith Reid, rousing bagpipes and an admirable we’re-not-gonna-take-it attitude in its throaty singalong chorus (I note that both sides one and two of this collection end with protest songs, or declarations of intent). Especially huge in Scotland and Canada.
It's hard to tell which is the more depressing - that even at this stage Madonna was still prepared to put her name to sentimental package tourist schmaltz like "La Isla Bonita," or the fact that so many people were prepared to buy (into) it. Then I looked at the sleeve of True Blue and was reminded that the song was co-written by Madonna, which is arguably more depressing than either of the above.
It wasn't yet summer when the song topped the chart but there is the unmissable stench of suntan lotion and unwieldy coaches about its "te amo" and "when the samba played" and "your Spanish lullaby," clearly aimed at the kind of visitor who wishes their Spain to be as close to Britain as possible, who would never dream of venturing into Goya country because, well, where's the sea and there isn't a pub for miles. Perhaps "San Pedro" is a confluence of flesh and spirit which foretells "Like A Prayer," but Madonna's performance is so listless - there are moments when she sounds as though she is struggling to remain awake - and the song so lifeless that the interest simply isn't generated. The solar paradise is oddly desolate, and the song's moping minor key conjures up the picture at the end of the Plath story "The Green Rock" when David and Sarah revisit the childhood beach they loved so much, only to find a small enclosure of sand and a green rock which formerly served as castle, sailboat and mountain but is now, stripped of the smallness and innocence of childhood, literally nothing more than a green rock.
Oh, the ignomity. Not just of whatever was left of the Temptations in 1987 demeaning themselves, or of Willis’ own atrocious vocal (in)abilities, or the dreadful HBO television “special” which accompanied no less than TWO top ten hits. But of the fact that the British public could vote Thatcher in for a third time and send this abominable record, which you or I could have sung better, to number two because HE’S ON TV and HE’S A HUNK. Soul, Passion and Honesty? This is what you end up with – bad sub-music (there’s such a thing as good sub-music? Does nobody remember Happy Flowers?) which you hide at the back of your singles forever until it’s time to send it to the charity shop. This is what happens when slavish adherence to The Past gets in the way of The Future happening.
Living In A Box
They were from Sheffield, and like Terence Trent D’Arby, lead singer Richard Darbyshire subsequently turned up on the B.E.F.’s Music Of Quality And Distinction Volume Two. Bobby Womack’s reading sweeps this one out of the room but to be fair it does have a hell of a lot more character, personality and force than some of the other stuff with which it had to cohabitate at the end. The song following it on this album, for instance.
Don’t worry, we’re going to be looking at Running In The Family, even though it was never a number one album (it finished second to The Joshua Tree), and “To Be With You Again” makes much more sense as a sequel song to “It’s Over,” which immediately precedes it on the LP (and whose single mix will turn up in a future TPL entry), and fits in with the record’s general theme of the collapse of the bond of family in Thatcher’s Britain. But this is purposeful, sad, grand and affecting, as if showing all of its supposed peers elsewhere on this record how this sort of thing ought to be done.
Echo and The Bunnymen
And so we finally get to them, near the end of their first incarnation. Like “Bring On The Dancing Horses,” but more convincingly, there is a sense of stepping back here; I’m sure they realised that U2 had won that particular war, for better or worse, but already they’re looking back with no regrets: “And it’s a better thing that we do now,” McCulloch sings, sounding remarkably like Stephen Malkmus will sound, “Forgetting everything, the whys and hows/While you reminisce about the things you miss/You won’t be ready to kiss…goodbye.” Ten years later they will say, much in the same autumnal mood, that nothing lasts forever. But go back to those first four albums – especially the second - and remind yourself just why so many people were prepared to…well, those were the times.
The Jesus and Mary Chain
I’m not sure that note-for-note recreations of Psychocandy are the way to go; wasn’t that what the record, the group, was supposed to be against in the first place? Oh, the stories I could tell you (for a competitive fee) about Billy Sloan’s Radio Clyde show, Rhythm System and the Mary Chain back in 1984 Glasgow.
But while the group were, in 1985, rightly lauded – stuck-up rock critics mouthing about “Nag, Nag, Nag” and Swell Maps were suddenly made to look very old indeed – they realised that the feedbacking couldn’t go on forever, and so Darklands, reversing the formula so that we got sweet, melodic songs with degenerate lyrics. “April Skies” finally got them into the top ten, and it is chiefly memorable for the struggle that is going on within the song – the old amplifier roars fighting to get back into the picture. Best song on the album: “Nine Million Rainy Days” – rarely has the “Sympathy For The Devil” template sounded so quiet and so threatening.
Quite the most uproarious and unhinged “rock” song on this collection; Fish wants to be a big star but not the tacky kind. This he does by providing the best Roger Daltrey impression I’ve ever heard, while the band behind him does their best to join the dots between “Won’t Get Fooled Again” and Van Halen’s “Jump.”
And so we come to the fourth, I suppose you could call it “adult,” side…and it begins with a protest song whose targets are not that obvious. Absent from the charts as a performer for fifteen years, Siffre had written “(Something Inside) So Strong” with a view to getting another performer to sing it, but when no obvious performers could be found, he offered to record it himself.
Its protest is slow, patient, angry and righteous; he is not merely protesting against South African apartheid (as if any protest of that kind could be dismissed as “mere”!) but also against anti-gay prejudice, at a time when, as now, it appeared to be thriving. Defiant and proud, “(Something Inside) So Strong” was a richly deserved top five hit.
Opening and closing with slab-like electronic footsteps, it was good to see the other Vinegar Joe lead singer achieve her first hit in over four years, and indeed the biggest hit of her career. Written by Russ Ballard, “No More The Fool” is a deliberately grandiose fuck-you power ballad which Brooks delivers with titanic aplomb – as if she’d been waiting all her life to sing the song.
Hardly anybody on this album is happy, are they? Logan’s ex is going off with somebody else, but there is time for one final show of love, or so he hopes. But it was his great Eurovision triumph, seven years after he first won it (he remains the only performer to have won the contest twice), and I well remember how overcome with emotion he was at the show’s end. So were the hundreds of thousands who sent the song to number two.
So few of the songs on this record get revived now. You never hear “Can’t Be With You Tonight” now, despite its spending a month at number two and becoming 1987’s eighth best-selling single. I had to remind myself how such a record could seemingly rise and sink again without trace – and the answer was television, specifically TV-AM, whose keep fit instructor “Mad” Lizzie Webb used the song as her exercise background music.
Boucher is from Saint Vincent in the Caribbean, and Felix da Silva wrote many of the songs that she recorded, including “Can’t Be With You Tonight.” In truth it is a dreary, plodding record; the central situation of I love you but I love him so I can’t do it with you tonight is reiterated and mansplained endlessly through what seems like an eternity. I have already noted the huge influence of Nashville radio stations on the development of Jamaican music, but really this is a song that a sixty-five-year-old Jim Reeves could have sung, had he lived to do so.
Wet Wet Wet
The first appearance for the boys from Clydebank, and a reminder that in eighties music there were two Glasgows and two Americas. First, the smooth pop/soul people who saw the America of New York, Hollywood, Sinatra and glamour; second, the ragged indie folk who saw the America of the Velvets, Big Star and Lee Hazelwood. Thus Wet Wet Wet and the Mary Chain; the Pastels and Hue and Cry.
But “Wishing I Was Lucky” is a very angry record indeed; our hopeful goes to London on the premise of finding work, only to find the gutter and a Government and industry which don’t give a damn. The glossy ABC-ish approach is not entirely successful in hiding Pellow’s fuming rage. The record fades before it can explode.
Johnny Hates Jazz
Their first and biggest hit, and a surprisingly durable, if mild-mannered-sounding, record with touches of Crowded House in the chord changes and harmony arrangements, and it is not really about a cheating lover: “You said you’d die for me – woke up to reality.” For its American release, a video was shot, directed by the younger David Fincher. We’ll be getting back to them a few times.
Pepsi & Shirlie
Looking through the BBC/Radio Times Genome programme, it became clear to me how and why Pepsi and Shirlie were so successful in the first half of 1987; they were never off the television, always turned up. “Goodbye Stranger” – nothing to do with Supertramp – is a finely bitter uptempo soul-pop record, such that at times you have to remind yourself that it isn’t a Wham! single (George Michael, making his third appearance on this record, contributes discreet backing vocals).
Nowhere near as irritating as it was when Radio 1 was playing it two hundred times a day, and actually quite a funny, astute and well-made record provided you hear it once in a generation. It’s an odd sign-off song with which to “bid farewell” to the Hits series, but I suppose it’s a protest song of sorts. But is that really Bill Drummond doing Scotty, and what does the speeded-up ethereality of the fadeout tell us, other than of the Space album to come. Then again, Rubettes guitarist Tony Thorpe and Moody Boyx mainman/KLF “Groove Consultant” Tony Thorpe are not the same person, so who’s to know?