Mar 24

A Boy on The Bay

This month, in the heart of darkest Lancashire, one of the countries smaller yet rather well regarded radio stations is celebrating a special anniversary. Hard to think it now, but this March marked 21 years since The Bay first took to the airwaves from its studios in the heart of Lancaster. To commemorate the occasion the station created a mini feature on its website with pictures and memories from its two decades plus on the air.

The reason this resonates so much with me? Well despite never formally being a member of the team of the radio station, it played an important part in my own career development and my growing love of radio. Because I was there too, right from the start.

The story all began in the weeks leading up to the launch of the station. The big on-air moment was scheduled for 8am on the morning of March 1st 1993 with a breakfast reception featuring representatives of the great and good of the Lancaster area, all crammed into the cleverly designed function room which allowed a goldfish bowl view onto the on-air studio. Needing some willing hands to help out on the day, the management of the station reached out to those of us running the student radio station at the university and asked if we’d be willing to provide support. Nothing glamorous obviously, mainly being car park marshals or manning the cloakroom – which is how I found myself in a position to hear first hand the welcome message from the Captain of Royal Navy Submarine HMS Vanguard as he radioed in live to officially put the radio station on air. We listened to all the speeches of thanks, handed everyone back their coats, drank the left over orange juice and pretty much thought nothing of it.

The launch of The Bay was an immediate success, particularly in an area which had until that point been poorly served by local radio, Preston station Rock FM (as it had mutated into by then) treating Lancaster as something of an afterthought in terms of coverage and attention. The Bay’s music policy was branded on air as “Classic Hits” although in tone it was closer to the middle of the road easy listening sound of the present day Magic network rather than a Gold service, playing famous old hits but unafraid to stir in newer sounds if they merited inclusion on the playlist. I never for a moment imagined I’d end up broadcasting there though, particularly not whilst still a student.

That was until later that summer when the campus radio station set forth grand plans for its first ever Restricted Service Licence, enabling us to cast off the crackly old AM loop system which restricted our audience to broadly nobody and spend a month spreading the word on FM. The plan was to go live for the very start of the new academic year in September 1993. We made sure funds were in place, gained the support of the University Dean who was legally our licencee and submitted the application to the Radio Authority. Who promptly turned us down flat.

The problem was the existence of The Bay. To protect the new business whilst it did the hard work of building an audience from scratch, the Radio Authority had an unwritten rule that no RSL stations could be allowed to operate in its area during the first year on air. Essentially we would be clashing with their attempts to establish themselves and despite an amateur student rabble presenting no clear threat either in terms of audience crossover or competition for advertising spend, we would have to go without. Our station director (these days a very big name in the world of broadcasting technology) was undaunted and wrote a pleading letter to The Bay to ask if they’d be willing to support our application and allow this rule to be waived.

Sensibly they declined, but instead dangled an intriguing carrot. How about they let us invade their airwaves. Overnight they took the Chiltern-originated Classic Gold service rather than running live shows themselves, so for the very first week of term – fresher’s week – they suggested that we wannabe DJs filled two three hour slots ourselves – it was to be Bailrigg On The Bay.

Now this was actually rather clever politicking on the part of the commercial radio station. Faced with their first ever influx of potential new listeners for the new university year, they were effectively getting us to do their marketing to campus for them, encouraging these new arrivals to the area to try out the local radio station. Because after all we’d still be playing Classic Hits on The Bay. Still, it was too good an offer to pass up. Plus was I, the most unashamedly ambitious radio presenter wannabe on the membership list at that time, going to throw away the chance to kick start what I hoped was going to be a stellar career? Heck no.

So it was that I (and my then two car loads of possessions) arrived back in Lancaster a day or so earlier than usual that September, ready for a Sunday afternoon training session at the radio station.

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As I recall we had all had to submit demo tapes to the programme controller Kenni James (of whom more later) but virtually everyone who wanted a slot was going to get a go on air – or at least that was the plan at first.

To this day I can still remember just what an extraordinary thrill it was. Up to that point I’d only ever presented on ancient hospital radio desks, RSL stations using disco mixers from Tandy and the rather rickety contraption that represented studios Alan and Bob back at the University Radio Bailrigg base. To just walk into the gleaming environment of The Bay was like stepping into another world. It wasn’t just that the setup was still brand new, with every light and switch active, the carpets clean and the music library still on fresh almost untouched CDs – although that helped. This was my first time in a professional environment and one which had been lovingly constructed by a team of experts with great skill. I’ve since presented on radio stations across the country, both local and national, but never have I been in a studio that made you sound so incredibly good as those at The Bay. I opened the mic during a training session, said my name, and heard my voice come back to me through the headphones sounding deep and rich and smooth. The perfect studio environment is a game raiser, make no mistake, and I knew that I owed it to myself to make what was effectively my professional debut (albeit at midnight and totally unpaid) the most brilliant sounding broadcast of my short life to that date.

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In the interests of putting our best foot forward, I was selected to launch Bailrigg On The Bay on what if memory serves was the Monday night of that week. Naturally they weren’t going to let us loose on their precious airwaves unsupervised and so during the week various members of the presentation team were instructed to ‘babysit’ us as we played Mariah Carey songs through the night. Our host for the first hour was the man in charge – Kenni James himself.

He was an extraordinarily intimidating presence, an imposing figure of a man and a radio presenter from the 80s school of local radio talent, when the jocks on ILR services were legitimately local superstars and developed a stage presence and egos to match. A veteran of north-west broadcasting (for years the soul man on Radio Merseyside before a successful career as Programme Director on Red Rose and Radio City), he was every inch the pretend rock star, complete with gleaming smile, a huge mane of dark hair and a radio voice that he never really dropped, his every utterance sounding as if he was talking to thousands. But he’d generally been there, worn the t-shirt and was now advancing his own career by putting together his very own radio station from scratch for the first time. And this man was going to be sat at my right hand side during my first three hours on air. Ready, I was presuming, to throw me off the moment I put a foot wrong.

So for the first 20 minutes I was a mess, shaking with nerves and hardly daring to say much beyond time and namechecks. During one disc I muttered something about not getting this completely right, to which Kenni James responded that I could always step away and let someone else have a go. Like that was ever going to happen. Suitably motivated I took a call from a lady living near by who wanted a mention as she was about to start University as a mature student that week and was nervous. I dedicated a record to her and just as it started added: “being a student is dead easy, don’t worry you are going to love it, I promise.”

“Excellent stuff, great link” enthused Mr James. From that moment on I knew I’d nailed it. I was suddenly the king of late night, gaining new confidence with every link and even daring to ride the intro of certain discs. It was everything I’d dreamed of since fourth year and more. Later that night Kenni drifted away into the office to nap (or style his hair, we weren’t completely sure), leaving myself and 3am shift jock Karen to snap away at each other to preserve the moment.

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Little did I know just how much he was appreciating my work. Stirring from some much needed slumber later that day I was greeted with the news that the boss of the station had thrown a spanner in the works. He wanted me as the star of Bailrigg on The Bay for the rest of that week, taking the midnight slot each night. Everyone else who still wanted to do it would have to go on at 3am. Naturally few of the other hopefuls at the university station were impressed and I had every sympathy with them. They deserved their shot at it too. On the other hand this was for me the most extraordinary affirmation. I’d coveted a career on the radio since I was 15 years old, had spent years playing with cassettes at home before paying my dues on a variety of amateur platforms. For the first time ever someone with professional experience and the power to hire and fire had heard my efforts and told me I had a future in this job. I wasn’t barking up the wrong tree with my chosen career path. It seemed I had within me the talent to do it.

Ultimately I did end up doing most of the week on air, save I think for one night when for the sake of retaining friends I took a back seat and two of my colleagues took the reigns instead, although I still stayed overnight at the studios just in case of disasters. It meant that during the week I got to speak to and learn from many of the other presenters on the station, well known northern radio names such as Les Gunn (who played me the demo tape he was sending out at the time – giving me tips on job hunting before I’d even started looking for one), evening presenter Dave Collins (a pirate radio veteran and scouse radio legend in his own right and who bemoaned to my friends the fact that I wasn’t at all gay but who did suggest that the fact that in my 20s I was irresistible to camp men would stand me in good stead in the media) and the new boy on the block Dave Richards who was the token local lad who had been plucked from obscurity to join the line-up. The only two presenters from the launch squad we never encountered during those late summer nights were regrettably the two biggest, velvet-voiced Manchester giant Mike Shaft (who has his own tribute to his days at The Bay on his own site) and the then slumming it afternoon presenter Spence MacDonald who perhaps quite sensibly was not trusted to make sure a bunch of students behaved themselves on air and would almost certainly have led us dangerously astray. By the weekend though they had either run out of volunteers or trusted us (me?) enough to behave ourselves. It meant I had the run of the building, although I never did locate the air conditioning controls which meant that one night the kitchen fridge had a more pleasant ambience than the on air studio.

Memorabilia? Of course I kept it, from the Bay Megamug which I’m sure is still tucked at the back of a cupboard at my parents’ house, to the now faded printout of one of the music logs from that week which still has pride of place in my box of special radio moments.

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The week ended and we all went our separate ways, save for a free party for our new station recruits hosted in the function room one evening a week or so later. Kenni James had intimated that he had plans for me, wanting to shoehorn me into the weekend schedules somewhere but for whatever reason (maybe because I didn’t seem to want it enough or just didn’t keep asking) nothing ever materialised. Even so, when I graduated at the end of that year and needed to do the hard work of looking for a proper job, The Bay was the first place I turned to. I booked myself to see Kenni James once more, sent him a demo tape of recent work and phoned him once a week for a month when he didn’t completely turn me down flat. In the end though, I had to let it go only to find my career taking off in the offices of a slightly more established radio station back in Yorkshire – although that of course is another story altogether.

21 years later the radio station is still there, still the core property of the tiny group which operates it, although now a much more generic Top 40 hits station rather than the “best music ever” format it launched with and still in the same converted warehouse near the quayside in which it was first built. Over the years I’d present and produce on bigger stations, in better slots and to far wider audiences, but I don’t think the magic of those first moments on my first ever professional radio station has ever actually been topped.

Feb 19

A Hairy Escape

I very rarely tweet anything outside of blog updates and links to articles these days, but one morning back in January I felt compelled to post the following:

It seemed entirely appropriate to express support for a true gentleman and a broadcaster whom I’d always held in high esteem as he began the arduous task of defending himself against what proved eventually to be what we had always suspected – a raft of utterly ludicrous charges of sexual misconduct. Nonetheless it was a nervy time, although information from several friends who had made regular trips to the public gallery at Southwark Crown Court during the weeks the trial of Dave Lee Travis was ongoing indicated that the case against him was unravelling on a daily basis.

Despite the court being just around the corner from the office where I work, to my shame the opportunity to go and observe proceedings never quite presented itself, although during the days of jury deliberation I did get a chance to wander past and snap the waiting media as they lingered for the moment when he would emerge from the court in (muted) triumph.

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I was actually too young to have ever listed to Dave Lee Travis in his prime, my Radio One listening coming long after he had been relegated to occasional weekend slots as the hardy veteran of the network. Nonetheless there are plenty of tapes of his early days in circulation. Take for example this extract of a show he presented on Christmas Eve 1971. Listening to it makes you appreciate just why he had such an extended career at the top of his profession, his style even back then a world away from the rather forced and unnatural sound of many of his Radio One contemporaries. In a sense he was almost ahead of his time, projecting the same natural warmth and effortless communication skills which he would still be demonstrating several decades later.

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No, my fondest memories of DLT on the radio came at the very end of the late 1980s, and particularly the lunchtime shows he presented on Radio One at the weekend. Sundays in particular were DLT days and memories of the routine of listening to his show whilst engaging in the weekly ritual of cleaning and dusting my bedroom, all the while with the Sunday roast cooking downstairs remain to this day a genuine touchstone to a particular moment of my adolescence. As an eager student of musical history, his programme was never less than worthwhile. In essence these weekend shows gave him the freedom to be a genuine Rex Bob Lowenstein, mixing and matching classic rock and pop with the very best contemporary sounds. Through him I learned of Steely Dan, of Todd Rundgren of Edwin Starr (the willing participant in a memorable April Fools prank) of Fleetwood Mac and even Clifford T Ward. The commercial chart stuff I could get from the shows on during the week. Weekends were where you went to have your mind expanded.

Whilst it is a problem entirely of his own making, it is naturally a shame that Dave Lee Travis will forever be defined by that one hotheaded moment in the summer of 1993 when he made the famous “changes are taking place that go against my principles” speech in which he revealed that he would not be renewing his contract when it expired later that year in what was admittedly a rather undignified and overblown manner.

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Contrary to popular belief, he wasn’t directly fired for that outburst and would theoretically have continued on air until the end of the year, departing Radio One as part of the first wave of Bannisterisation under the regime of the new controller. But instead, as then controller Johnny Beerling explains in his autobiography Radio One: The Inside Scene:

Peace was restored for two whole days until Wednesday August 11, when Dave came to see me to tell me he had not felt able to keep his lip buttoned any longer and had given an exclusive interview to Piers Morgan for The Sun. In the interview Dave talked about his meetings with John Birt and Liz Forgan, his desire to be moved to a Network where he could appeal to a middle aged audience, and how he felt BBC morale to be at an all time low. Liz was even more furious than I. “Dirty little toad” was the description that she spat out and I too felt somewhat betrayed. I told Dave he had effectively fired himself and we would no longer have need of his services. He accepted the situation and understood full well that I had no alternative. I suspect he knew anyway that the way the BBC was changing would mean that there would be little future for him in the new Controller’s Radio 1. Because there was still no overall strategy regarding Radios 1 & 2’s music, BBC Radio as a whole lost out and eventually commercial radio gained another big name DJ. This was only a foretaste of what was to come.

Beerling, Johnny (2010-11-05). Radio 1 – The Inside Scene (Kindle Locations 8220-8232). Lambs Meadow Publications. Kindle Edition.

DLT spent the next few years shuttling around a variety of commercial stations, via a syndicated weekend programme hosted by short-lived satellite network Quality Europe FM and one which was taken by a handful of FM stations in this country. He did of course remain with the BBC in one respect, continuing to host the World Service request show A Jolly Good Show until 1999, one which ensured he remained a huge name in those parts of the world where the BBC’s overseas broadcasts still command a huge audience. The British media reacted with some bemusement when Burmese dissident Aung San Suu Kyi spoke in glowing terms of the comfort his shows gave her when she spent years under house arrest in her native country, but it was nothing more than a reflection of the celebrity he still maintained despite his apparent domestic fall from grace.

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Eventually DLT was hired to work a regular show by the then GWR-owned Classic Gold network and it was here that I ran into him for the first time. The radio station I was working for needed a new sustaining service for its AM licence and so signed a deal to take the Classic Gold network. My bosses at the time quickly identified that the presence of Dave Lee Travis on the schedules was a major selling point and should be the focus of their marketing efforts. To his obvious delight he was thus booked for a series of photo sessions which became the core of the “DLT’s Back!” marketing campaign with a series of postcards depicting – yes – DLT’s back as thanks to some studio wizardy he peered out from behind himself.

There was even a fully branded bus, one that I captured with a photograph the day an example was parked outside the studios, attracting the attention of some of Bradford council’s finest in the process.

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In return Dave Lee Travis was more than happy to give up his time to do any promotional work needed, happy to lend his name and image, for example, to a stamp collecting appeal which raised money to train several guide dog puppies. On the days when he came into the office I’m ashamed to say I was actually far too starstruck to have the courage to talk to him properly and tell him how much of an inspiration he was growing up, a crying shame because knowing what I do of him he would have been very touched to learn it.

During the course of his trial, defence counsel produced a string of character witnesses who all refuted the allegations of offensive or boorish behaviour which had been levelled at him. It all proved what many of us knew already, that for all the buffoonish public image and rather sneering coverage of his post-BBC career. Whilst it isn’t really my story to tell, it would be remiss of me here not to mention the experience of one good friend of mine, these days one of the most highly respected radio broadcasters of his generation and a man who commands vast audiences across an entire region, but who was once a teenage hopeful wanting to learn all he could about radio. After spotting Dave Lee Travis on a BBC documentary in the early 90s bemoaning that few people ever approach him about wanting to learn from his experience, my friend wrote him a letter asking for advice. He was shocked to receive in return a multi-page handwritten letter containing a huge list of tips, tricks and encouragement. Having treasured the letter for decades, many years later my friend was able to approach him at a company awards ceremony, showed him the pages and thanked him for writing it. Travis apparently was so touched he openly wept at his table.

As I say, that’s not really my story to tell. But it stands as a shining example of his warm, generosity and humble spirit and gives you something of the measure of the man.

So it was with some joy that last week I was awakened from a post-overnight shift sleep by messages from friends that the verdict had come down and that as expected he had been cleared of virtually all charges levelled against him with the jury deadlocked on two more and with common sense suggesting that they too will end up being dropped. It is hard not to feel aggrieved at the personal cost to him of this ordeal, selling his house and being in danger of losing everything he had worked his whole life for because of baseless allegations. The only hope now is that he finds some way of restoring his reputation and his career and I cannot help but to watch gleefully the dilemma that Magic AM now find themselves in, facing questions from listeners who will want to know, given that Coronation Street stood by its two stars who were similarly acquitted of serious charges and welcomed them immediately back to work, why the Saturday lunchtime DLT show should not be reinstated to the schedules.

If it happens, I know I’ll be turning in with pleasure, whilst at the same time harbouring evil thoughts about campaigning to get this classic moment of pop music back into the charts:

 

Jan 26

Hey, What Does It Take (Again)?

A little under a year ago and following a request from a friend I posted a detailed breakdown of just how many copies it took to reach the top of the singles chart in 2012. With a full 12 months having elapsed and an whole new year of data to work with it seemed only appropriate to update that now, and hopefully answer for the benefit of anyone searching for the next 12 months the answer to the eternal question:

How many copies do you have to sell to reach Number One?

Last year to avoid an excessive skew, I disregarded the final two weeks of 2012 in these calculations as the X Factor single followed by the Christmas Number One race meant that the Number One single in those weeks registered sales far in excess of the norm. This time around this isn’t necessary as in reaching the top of the charts at Christmas the Sam Bailey single actually sold close to the average amount of any single this year, so all 52 weeks of 2013, from the chart dated 5th January 2013 (with James Arthur’s Impossible at the top) to the one dated 28th December 2013 (when Sam Bailey’s Skyscraper was at Number One) are included in these calculations.

Sales of Number One singles in 2013 ranged from a low point of 46,279 (achieved rather surprisingly by Lily Allen with Somewhere Only We Know on the chart of December 14th) to a high of 266,524 as sold by Wake Me Up by Avicii on July 27th. The mean value for all 52 weeks was just shy of 109,113 copies whilst the median figure (the exact mid point of all the totals laid in order) was 104,501.5. It is therefore statistically sound to conclude that to reach Number One in an average week in 2013 a record would need to sell between 100,000 and 110,000 copies.

As in last year’s commentary, it must be noted that this is the total number of copies actually sold by Number One hits, not technically how much they needed to sell, a figure which will always be precisely one more copy than the Number 2 single that week.

The highest selling Number 2 single of 2013 was, perhaps surprisingly, Scream And Shout by will.i.am and Britney Spears in the very first chart of the year, selling 115,896 copies behind the James Arthur single. It was in fact one of five different occasions during the year when a record selling well into six figures only reached Number 2 and indeed one of two records which sold more than the average Number One single during the year but still failed to top the charts in that particular week.

At the other end of the scale, the lowest selling Number 2 single of the year (and thus the easiest target) was Counting Stars by OneRepublic which sold a mere 39,696 copies on September 21st, some distance behind the 103,000 sold by Katy Perry at the top of the charts that week. So it never really stood a chance.

In conclusion then, in a world when none of the Number One records actually existed, to guarantee to top the singles chart in any given week in 2013 your record would have had to sell 115,897 copies – actually far more than the average – although it could well have done so with just 39,697 copies (and it is worth noting that the notorious campaign to propel Ding Dong The Witch Is Dead to Number One back in April resulted in a sale of 52,605 copies in a week when the Number One single sold just 6,000 copies more). In the real world where your hypothetical single was competing with the market as it actually existed, you would need to command a sale of 266,525 to guarantee a Number One, 104,502 to stand a 50/50 chance over the course of the year and a mere 46,280 during the weakest week of the year.

Hope that is clear. See you in 2015.

Jan 19

Sausage Cottage

Just an average kind of day in South East London then.

This morning I prised myself out of bed at a slightly more ridiculous hour than I am comfortable with, propelled myself to the bathroom, noted how great I look in the morning and prepared for work.

Being a Sunday, the whole of the London area rail network has ground to a halt for engineering work. Knowing this in advance, I left the house at 9.45am to drive to the office instead.

By 10.30am I was on a bus to the neighbouring town to instead catch a train on the one line which was working to pitch up to work an hour later than planned.

This is why.

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Evening Update: Having been called back by the police, it is easier to piece together what happened. Although I’d assumed that the number plates had been swiped some time during the night, it was actually early on Saturday evening as at around 5.30pm a vehicle wearing the registration number of my denuded car filled up with £67 worth of petrol from a local station and drove off without attempting to pay. It would be nice to think they subsequently drove recklessly, slammed into a central reservation on the M20 and perished horribly in an ironic fireball of stolen petrol, but maybe fate has a different destiny for them, who knows.

All I can do now is drag my documents to Halfords at the start of the week to get new plates printed up and then spend the next week wondering if any surprise speeding, bus lane or congestion charge penalty notices will drop through the letterbox. After all if you are going to drive around pretending to be somebody else’s car, you should at least go all out and commit a few traffic violations. Seems only right. Or wrong.

 

Jan 17

We Have The Best Vid.. sorry, Fans.

Towards the end of 1988, BBC Radio One broadcast an informal countdown of what it claimed were its listeners favourite songs of all time. Not too dissimilar to similar surveys it had conducted in the past, the roll-call of the usual suspects of the time were all present and correct in this fun chart, aside from a seemingly random sprinkling of more contemporary hits. The Number One on this list was however rather more of a shock. Bohemian Rhapsody or Stairway To Heaven perhaps? No. The “Radio One Listeners” favourite song of all time ever at that precise moment was: When Will I Be Famous by Bros.

Actually this wasn’t such a shock when you noted just how the table had been compiled. Audiences to that summer’s Radio One Roadshows were asked to fill out cards listing their three favourite songs. Small wonder that when the votes were tallied the high proportion of teenage girls in the audience meant a rather unusual skew towards the likes of Bros and Wet Wet Wet (who also featured heavily).

There is nothing particularly wrong with conducting surveys amongst a self-selecting audience to find their favourite music of the moment, but the danger comes when you conflate the idea of “Popular” with “Best”. The most high profile example of public votes for popular music in recent years was the well received “Record Of The Year” event, broadcast by ITV every December between 1998 and 2005. Claimed by creator Jonathan King to be the inspiration for the Pop Idol/X Factor model of mass audience interactivity, the shows invited viewers to participate via a phone vote to select their favourite pop record of the year, taken from a shortlist of ten acts all of whom performed for the studio audience on the night.

The subsequent roll call of winners demonstrated just who the most enthusiastic voters were. Boyzone, Westlife, Westlife, S Club 7, Gareth Gates, Westlife, Busted, Westlife all in turn walked away with the prestigious prize. Pop acts were king, and the winner each time was actually a more or less foregone conclusion even before the show aired. Nobody minded because this was at the end of the day a Saturday night schedule filler and nobody was pretending that these records were the “best” of anything. Just the most popular of that moment. Job done, everybody move on.

In theory industry award ceremonies are supposed to be free of this level of partisanship. Whilst the almost insane levels of horse trading and lobbying that goes on behind the scenes sometimes causes the facade to crack, the annual Oscars ceremony is held up as a barometer of pure quality in movie making, as voted for by a panel of leading industry experts. When it comes to music awards however this distinction between expert artistic merit and true popularity seems to be problematic. Music does seem to lend itself to a small degree of intellectual snobbery after all and I’ve taken great delight in aligning myself against it over the years. That said the industry has not helped itself at times, the infamous 1989 Brit Awards being the ceremony where the sales-free Michelle Shocked was nominated for Best International Female whereas Kylie Minogue was not.

Hence the presence ever since of at least one award which is selected by the audience, generally that of Best British Single which has been voted for over the years by radio station listeners, flip flopping between the BBC and commercial radio depending on who is organising the thing at the time. This is why we have the likes of Take That, Girls Aloud and JLS on the roll-call of past winners. Of dubious merit, but it at least allows the night to contain one moment of randomness, so people let it slide.

This year however there is a new addition to the poll. The return of the Best British Video category after an absence of some years. At the time of writing we have no idea what the contenders are, merely that a shortlist of five is to be announced on the night with the winners selected by “social media users”. Even the official site for the awards is remaining coy as to what that means but it is not hard to imagine how that will work. Facebook Likes for each one? Possibly. What about asking people to tweet a hashtag? Sounds flawless. Except as we all know, the tweeting power of your average fangirl is pretty immense. How often do you glance at the table of trending topics and note that the whole thing is made up of panting Bieber-related slop or #Get1DToNumberOne astroturfing.

So it is obvious where this is heading. Straight down the When Will I Be Famous cul-de-sac. Except that the category here is for Best Video, the ultimate convergence of the audio and visual arts. Since its inception the four minute music track has proved to be the perfect subject matter for all manner of high level directors to focus their talents on telling a story quickly and effectively with the ability of a good video to sell a song having been studied and documented in precise detail over the years. Put simply an award for the best video clip is surely one gong which deserves to be judged solely on artistic merit by those best places to appreciate its quality. Not by tweeting teenagers whose sole barometer of quality is which unobtainable pretty boy they want to snog this week.

When One Direction pick up their Brit Award for Best British Video for Best Song Ever next month, don’t say I didn’t warn you. But let’s also note that one clip from two and a half decades ago and which to this day still ranks as one of the greatest ever visual accompaniments to a pop record ever was also the winner of a Best Video trophy – and there is no chance it would have done so faced with competition from Rick Astley fans.

Jan 06

Just The Facts Ma’am

I confess it has been a long time since I was a regular reader of Private Eye magazine, having stopped when it became apparent that the long-running satirical title is a pale shadow of what it used to be, and also when it appeared to start becoming the in-house magazine for the Sixth Form economists who regard paying as much tax as possible as some kind of strange moral duty. However, in need of some journey time reading material just before Christmas I picked up the most recent issue, and in some ways am glad I did, for one article in particular caught my eye:

It was this particular paragraph from the Street Of Shame column, poking fun at a London Evening Standard profile of one Stacey Jackson, wife as it so happens of city financier Henry Jackson:

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I was momentarily puzzled, because I had no recollection of any artist called Stacey Jackson having had a Number 8 hit any time in the past few years. Could it have been in a week when I wasn’t paying proper attention?

Intrigued, I went and looked up the source of the piece and indeed the breathless piece from the Evening Standard is indeed still online and it does indeed contain the reference to her apparently stellar pop career:

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Except this is patent bollocks. Enthusiastic as she is about her entirely self-financed album, neither it nor any of the singles from it have been anywhere near the charts, much less actually made the Top 10. So just where on earth has the author of the piece Maxine Frith got this information from?

Well some clue comes from the similarly breathless Wikipedia page on Ms Jackson, much of which appears to have been the work of a now-vanished user called “Anna12300”. This page once more repeats the claim about this mysterious single Pointing Fingers, namely that:

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That’s an odd turn of phrase don’t you think? I mean who on earth refers to the “commercial pop charts” when talking about the success of music they have released. However the Wikipedia page happily contains a further clue as to what that actually means, a table of her musical achievements thus far contains a citation link pointing to the website of publishers and promoters Soulshaker Music and their past achievements for artists as diverse as Lindsay Lohan(!) and naturally enough Ms Stacey Jackson:

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Things now become a tiny bit clearer. The “commercial pop charts” boasted of by her Wikipedia page and which have ended up being interpreted as “the music charts” themselves by the Evening Standard writer are in fact the Music Week Commercial Pop Chart, one of a handful of club listings featured each week in Music Week – based not on actual sales but from surveys returned by club DJs across the country, based on no more accurate metrics than what their audiences have responded to the most during the course of the week and how often the tracks have featured in their sets. These listings are seen by some as a good barometer of just what is creating a ‘buzz’ in clubs and an indication of what may go onto commercial success in the future, but the methodology used to compile them is highly random and naturally enough open to influence – bung your favourite club DJ enough cash and he’ll feature you on his returns, regardless of whether he’s played the track or not. More importantly, to appear in the Music Week club charts does not require the sale of one single copy – just to place your record in the hands of someone with a survey form.

Based on her website, Stacey Jackson is clearly a relentless and enthusiastic self-promoter, a lady who even at the age of 44 and with a large family to take care of is living the dream of a lifestyle of z-list friends and the chance to cling onto her fantasy of becoming a proper pop star in the footsteps of people such as Madonna. There is no suggestion that she has set out to mislead or misrepresent the success of her work or the impact it has had. The errors come when magazine and newspaper journalists scan press releases in a hurry or do their own limited research and assume that when someone talks about their records “making the charts” it must mean one thing and one thing only. Sometimes of course that can work to the subject’s advantage. Ms Jackson’s website contains a link to another puff piece on Disney-sponsored parenting website Babble.com and an article from May last year which boldly states:

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Stacey Jackson did indeed collaborate with Snoop Dogg on a track called Live It Up and has the pictures and cuttings to prove it on her website. But that was back in 2011 and the track in question had absolutely no connection with the single Live It Up as performed by Pitbull and Jennifer Lopez and which was indeed at Number 2 on the charts in May 2013.

But then again if I was her, I wouldn’t be in too much of a hurry to point out that error either.

Dec 24

The ‘86 Countdown–Part Four

A fun fact that is more or less lost to people’s memories these days: this chart dates from an era when the weekly Top 40 was unveiled to the public on Tuesday lunchtime, the Sunday chart show on Radio One thus counting down the singles chart a week AFTER it had been compiled and just two days before a new one was announced. Thus the honour of revealing the big news about who was Christmas Number One 1986 fell to Gary Davies on the ‘Bit In The Middle’ lunchtime show on Radio One. A moment I do actually remember listening to, as I was waiting for one particular chart record to fall. But we’ll come to that.

10: Bon Jovi – Livin’ On A Prayer

Two albums into their career, Bon Jovi had achieved a modest level of success without attracting much in the way of high profile mainstream attention. The story goes that Jon Bon Jovi was listening back to their second album, 1985s 7800 degrees Fahrenheit, to locate a potential new single. Stuck for inspiration he threw on a tape Canadian rock band Honeymoon Suite and realised to his frustration that it sounded better than his own record. The producer of the latter was one Bruce Fairburn and it was thanks to his influence, plus the song-writing skills of Desmond Child that the next Bon Jovi release Slippery When Wet turned the New Jersey group into true international superstars. Leading the charge was a track which to this day remains one of their most famous hit singles and which thanks to a last minute bit of studio inspiration reintroduced the talk box to the world of rock music. Bon Jovi had already had their first UK Top 40 hit earlier in the summer with You Give Love A Bad Name but it was easily Livin’ On A Prayer which propelled them into the mainstream. Despite being at the very heart of mid-80s hair metal, the tale of Tommy and Geena and their financial struggles remains an uplifting, stadium-filling, punch the air with joy rock anthem – the kind of tracks some groups strive for years to create and which Bon Jovi put their name to right at the very start of theirs. Released in mid-October 1986, Livin’ On A Prayer had climbed the charts steadily to peak at Number 4 in early December and was still selling strongly into party season, kicking this particular Top 10 off in some considerable style.

9: Gregory Abbott – Shake You Down

Speaking of party season, this was almost certainly the track to which you copped a feel with Sharon from 5C at the school disco. The one and only hit single for American soul singer Gregory Abbott (despite years of subsequent trying for a second), Shake You Down is the kind of smooth ballad which defines a moment in time, the definitive romantic soundtrack to Christmas 1986 and a track which is unable to escape that association, no matter how many cheap to licence “Best 80s Love Ever” compilations it pops up on from time to time. A Number 6 hit just a few weeks earlier, the track was at this stage on a gradual descent down the singles chart – a listing he would oddly never grace again to rank as a true one hit wonder.

8: Alison Moyet – Is This Love

After the demise of Yazoo, singer Alison Moyet signed a solo deal of her own and established herself in her own right with some style with the release of her 1984 debut album Alf along with its attendant singles. The promotion for that record climaxed in March 1985 with the release of non-album single That Ole Devil Called Love which peaked at Number 2 and as a knock-on effect meant that her next release was more or less guaranteed to be huge. We had to wait almost two years for it to arrive, but November 1986 saw the release of Is This Love the first time from what would become her second album Raindancing (which itself landed in the shops early the following year). Despite a slow start, the brisk and breezy pop record was soon the huge hit it was always expected to be, spent a fortnight at Number 8 over the Christmas period before settling into an extended Top 3 run as one of the first big new hits of the new year.

7: A-Ha – Cry Wolf

The second single from A-Ha’s Scoundrel Days album which saw the Norwegian group take full advantage of their pant-moistening appeal amongst the teenage girls of Europe to release some rather bold, incredibly complicated and lyrically dark records, all of which by and large got a free pass because, you know, they were A-Ha records – and A-Ha were great! Following the the intense I’ve Been Losing You came the gothic tones of Cry Wolf, a single which would become the second of four singles they released during their career to peak at Number 5….

Oh come on, did you really think I would go an entire piece without dropping in some form of useless statistic? Anyway, the b-side of Cry Wolf was the rather more catchy Maybe Maybe which also featured on the album and could well have been a good choice of single. It did come out as one – in Bolvia according to Wikipedia.

6: Oran ‘Juice’ Jones – The Rain

“I saw you (and him), walking in the rain/you were holding hands will I/ever be the same”. Oran ‘Juice’ Jones was notable as the first ever artist signed to OBR records, a short lived offshoot of Def Jam records and intended to be a home for black artists who didn’t quite fit the usual profile of the famous hip-hop label. He is to all intents and purposes a one hit wonder, hit single The Rain the only chart record (despite several grammy nominations) from his debut album Juice and with his two follow-up collections rather less well received. So just what makes The Rain so special? After all the opening couplet hardly sells it as anything more than a typical tale of love gone wrong all done in a smooth soul style which just screams “pencil moustache and trench coat”.

Well just take a listen. The “song” itself only lasts for three minutes of the track’s five minute length. The remaining two (which shamefully is sometimes faded out early when played on the radio) is taken up with an extended monologue from “The Juice” himself as he welcomes home his cheating other half from her hard day at work and The Rain becomes beyond a shadow of a doubt the greatest record ever made.

Hey hey baby how ya doin’ come on in here. Got some hot chocolate on the stove waiting for you. Listen first things first let me hang up the coat. Yeah, how was your day today? Did you miss me? You did? Yeah? I missed you too. I missed you so much I followed you today. That’s right now close your mouth ’cause you cold busted. Now just sit down here, sit down here. I’m so upset with you I don’t know what to do. You know my first impulse was to run up on you and do a Rambo. I was about to jam you and flat blast both of you, but I didn’t wanna mess up this $3700 Lynx coat. So instead I chilled. That’s right chilled. I called up the bank and took out every dime. Then I cancelled all your credit cards. I stuck you up for every piece of jewellery I ever bought you! Don’t go lookin’ in that closet ’cause everything you came here with is packed up and waiting for you in the guest room. What were you thinking? You don’t mess with the Juice! I gave you silk suits, blue diamonds and Gucci handbags. I gave you things you couldn’t even pronounce! But now I can’t give you nothing but advice. Cause you’re still young, yeah, you’re young. And you’re gonna find somebody like me one of these days . . . Until then, you know what you gotta do? You gotta get on outta here with that alley-cat-coat-wearing, punch-bucket-shoe-wearing crumbcake I saw you with. Cause you dismissed!

5: Erasure – Sometimes

Having mentioned Yazoo above, what did Vince Clarke move onto next following his parting of the ways from Alison Moyet? Well actually it was The Assembly, intended to be a “Vince plus whoever” project with a rotating cast of guest singers but which was abandoned after the solitary hit single Never Never which featured Fergal Sharkey on vocals. Instead following a music press advert for a new singer he recruited the flamboyant Andy Bell with the duo forming Erasure, far and away the most enduring and successful project of the songwriter’s long and storied career. Initially however the project was a flop. Unfair comparisons between Bell’s tones and those of Clarke’s erstwhile female companion led to accusations that Erasure was just a poor Yazoo copy, the three singles from their debut album Wonderland all failing to make the grade. It was only when the pair moved onto new material, that which would form the basis of their second album The Circus that they finally hit the sales jackpot. Sometimes at first appeared to be struggling just like their previous releases, hitting the shops in mid-October 1986 the single took a full four weeks to even make the Top 40. Once there though it took off like the proverbial rocket and four weeks later was at Number 2, a chart placing it would take the pair six years to exceed. The first in a run of Top 10 hit singles which would stretch over the next 18 years, Sometimes still stands proud if not necessarily as one of the best Erasure singles, certainly one of the most famous.

4: Madonna – Open Your Heart

So often hyped as a contender, yet never actually in contention Open Your Heart was one of a long line of Madonna hit singles which coincided with the end of the year, yet which was never truly in the running to be Christmas Number One. The fourth of five singles lifted from her hit True Blue album, such was the sheer unrelenting nature of Madonna’s chart appeal Open Your Heart still managed to be the smallest despite its three weeks locked at Number 4 over the Christmas period. Being a Madonna single it would not have been complete without a small amount of controversy, this time thanks to the video which pictured Ms Ciccone as the performer at a peep show, her portrayal as the woman in control over the desperate losers in the booths overshadowed by the presence of child actor Felix Howard as the only one who wins her heart at the end.

3: Europe – The Final Countdown

Originally formed as Force in their native Sweden the newly renamed Europe had released two album independently before signing a worldwide deal with Epic records in 1985. The fruit of this union was the album The Final Countdown, for some the epitome of 1980s soft metal excess with gigantic perms, leather trousers and polished to perfection synth-led radio-friendly rock to the fore but one which naturally contains the title track, one of the biggest selling singles worldwide in 1986. Originally developed from an instrumental fanfare designed to play the band on stage, The Final Countdown grew instead into the ludicrous tale of space travel as a metaphor for love and briefly turned the group into the hottest property in Metal. Released in Britain in late October 1986, The Final Countdown grew from small beginnings into a single which would ultimately spend a fortnight at the top of the charts in late November and early December, one of only a tiny handful of *cough* heavy metal tracks ever to reach Number One on the UK charts and in the process hand Tempest and his musicians something of a lifelong pension plan. Still recording and touring today after a 1990s hiatus, Europe are actually held in high regard by rock fans for the quality of their live shows and their sporadic releases of new material, yet they still remain faithful to their earlier and somewhat naffer works, The Final Countdown still part of their sets and one which they are happy to acknowledge as their most famous musical moment, even if revisionist history would like to paint it as the shining example of bloated 80s rock excess.

2: Housemartins – Caravan Of Love

Another act who had taken off in some style in 1986 after initial early struggles, the self-styled “fourth best band in Hull” had broken through commercially with the single Happy Hour, a track which shot to Number 3 in the summer thanks in part to the eye-catching (and given the way things played out at the end of the year, desperately ironic) claymation video. Follow-up single Think For A Minute had peaked 15 places lower in October but the group would return to the business end of the chart in December with their most striking musical moment yet. Originally recorded by the second-generation American group Isley Jasper Isley who had reached Number 52 with their version in late 1985, The Housemartins’ quirky acapella take on the song was swiftly added to their live repertoire and indeed formed part of a session they recorded for the John Peel show on Radio One early the following year and just prior to their first commercial success. Peel loved the concept so much that he invited the group back to record an entirely acapella session, this time masquerading as the Fish City Five, a moniker they also used in order to play as their own support act for a famous homecoming concert back in Hull. The next logical step was to release Caravan Of Love as a single, and so it was that almost exactly three years after the UK charts had its first entirely vocal Number One hit it had a second as The Housemartins landed their biggest chart hit ever exactly one week before Christmas. Given that the Flying Pickets take on Only You had easily and famously been the Christmas Number One of 1983 it seemed almost a racing certainty that Caravan Of Love would spend a second week at the top and duplicate the feat. They were even preparing for a triumphant appearance on the Christmas Day Top Of The Pops on that basis:

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Fate, and wouldn’t you just know it, another claymation video had other ideas….

1: Jackie Wilson – Reet Petite (The Sweetest Girl In Town)

One of the more famous and highly regarded soul singers of the late 50s and early 60s, Jackie Wilson never lived to see his greatest British chart triumph. Felled by an onstage heart attack in 1975, he fell into a coma which lasted until he passed away in 1984. Reet Petite was one of his earliest hits, originally released in Britain in 1957 and a Number 6 hit early the following year – penned as it so happened by Berry Gordy, one of his first ever successful compositions. Its apparently random revival almost 30 years later came thanks to an edition of the BBC2 documentary strand Arena, concentrating on upcoming British film studios and which featured the work of animation house Giblets. Their segment of the programme featured a claymation Jackie Wilson accompanied by what are best described as three lips on stalks, dancing in a manner of alarming ways to his most famous hit single. It was eye-catching enough to prompt an opportunistic re-issue, now with the new video attached.

Reet Petite still might not have taken off, but for the fact that classic soul was suddenly back in vogue. The first instalments of the famous Levis 501 adverts had not only propelled Nick Kamen to stardom but also led to their soundtracks marching into the charts. Thus I Heard It Through The Grapevine had reached Number 8 in the spring, simultaneously with What A Wonderful World reaching Number 2. Against this backdrop it wasn’t hard to see how Reet Petite and its video would become a smash hit too. Released in late November, the single bounded 63-40-14-2 where it sat just before Christmas, one place behind The Housemartins. The 13 year old me was suddenly intrigued. If the single made Number One it would shatter into oblivion a pair of notable chart records, and I was enormously keen to watch it all happen. One week later the 1950s song was at the top of the charts, embarking on what would actually be a startling four week spell at the top – this was no Christmas novelty it seemed. 29 years and six weeks after it first hit the charts, Reet Petite set a new record for the slowest climb to Number One by any single ever, the late Jackie Wilson similarly waiting longer than any other act before him for his first ever chart-topping hit. (Both records were subsequently shattered by Tony Christie in 2005 when Is This The Way To Amarillo gave both artist and song a Number One hit after a wait of over 34 years).

Perhaps even more extraordinarily the Jackie Wilson revival would continue into 1987, even without the aid of animated videos. I Get The Sweetest Feeling would hit Number 3 in February followed by Higher And Higher going Top 20 in July. Three years after he passed away and more than two decades after his greatest success, Jackie Wilson was one of the more prolific chart acts of the year – and of course he was the 1986 Christmas Number One.

Fancy a listen back to the whole of the countdown? Well just click any of the individual song links, or enjoy the playlist which should appear below in all non-rubbish browsers. Merry Christmas.

Dec 23

The ‘86 Countdown–Part Three

Normally at this stage of the proceedings in a chart retrospective I’ll stop to note just where I was in life and which particular events still resonate in the memory when hearing these songs in this particular context again. Going back this far makes it tricky, I was just 13 years old and strange though it may sound was only just emerging from a period of self-imposed ignorance of much modern music. As will become clear later, however, one particular moment sparked a flame that has yet to die out. The only reference point I have is the annual festive treat organised by school, which for we Third Years at the time was an evening out at Bradford ice rink. It was there I think I heard Merry Xmas Everybody and linked it for the first time with the perennial Slade track which I’d read about in the copy of British Hit Singles borrowed from the school library.

Mind you, I remember seeing the next song on Top Of The Pops as well:

20: Roger Whittaker and Des O’Connor – The Skye Boat Song

Also known as “O’er The Sea To Skye” by anyone who learned to play the recorder at the tail end of the 20th century, the Skye Boat Song is generally reckoned to date from the 1870s, recalling the escape of Bonnie Prince Charlie after defeat at the Battle Of Culloden in 1746. Folk singer (and celebrated whistler) Roger Whittaker had featured the song in his act since the 1970s, a period in which he’d also clocked up a small handful of hit singles, most notably The Last Farewell which had reached Number 2 in July 1975. He had however been absent from the charts ever since then until a chance performance with Des O’Connor on one of the latter’s TV shows led to the release of this rather famous duet. O’Connor himself was no stranger to the singles chart, having reached Number One with I Pretend back in 1968, but he too had been absent from the charts for some time, his last chart hit having been way back in 1970. So it was that the two performing veterans made a memorable bid for chart glory, their strangely compelling version of the old Scottish song managing to reach Number 10 in late November, the single release maybe coming just too early to be considered a Christmas chart contender, although it was still here just inside the Top 20 by the time the festive season arrived.

19: Debbie Harry – French Kissin’ In The USA

The serious illness suffered by her husband Chris Stein in the early 1980s not only caused the cessation of Blondie’s recording activities, but it also momentarily put on hold Debbie Harry’s burgeoning solo career following the release of her album KooKoo in 1981. Five years later Stein had recovered and it was all systems go again with Harry’s second album Rockbird hitting the shops in November 1986. The lead single from the album was an epic piece of new wave disco, the thudding bassline of French Kissin’ In The USA a more or less permanent fixture on European radio towards the back end of the year. Despite the title the single was never a major success in the USA but it remains Debbie Harry’s most notable solo chart single, reaching Number 8 in early December 1986 to become her one and only Top 10 single outside of her work with Blondie. French Kissin’ In The USA is also the one and only hit single penned by one Chuck Lorre, these days a renowned television writer with a string of hit sitcoms under his belt, but back then an aspiring musician and composer, immortalised forever as the creator of this seasonal hit single.

18: Elkie Brooks – No More The Fool

Ask people to name an Elkie Brooks hit, and aside from the ones who shamefully say “who?”, those familiar with the former Vinegar Joe singer will almost certainly name past classics such as Pearl’s A Singer or her hit cover of Chris Rea’s Fool If You Think It’s Over. Yet far and away her biggest ever hit single in her native country is the epic, smouldering ballad No More The Fool, the title track from an album of the same name and which at one point threatened to spark off a most unexpected late 80s comeback. Sadly it never quite worked out that way with none of her later singles turning into hits, but as chart swansongs go this was quite something. Written and produced by Russ Ballard, the single took almost a full month to catch fire following a mid-November release but by Christmas it was powering its way up the singles chart and had for the moment come to rest here, just inside the Top 20. One of those singles which manages to float its way into contention after the holiday finishes, No More The Fool would eventually spend three weeks at Number 5 in January, far and away Elkie Brooks’ highest charting single ever and one which dragged its parent album kicking and screaming into the Top 10 to boot. One of her greatest, theoretically most memorable but oddly least remembered hit singles. Correct this now and appreciate its brilliance.

17: Status Quo: Dreamin’

Another ill-starred follow-up, Dreamin’ was a pleasant four minutes of vintage quo, augmented by horns and harmonies but one which had the enormous misfortune to be the follow-up to In The Army Now, the cover version of an old Dutch hit single which had turned their traditional formula on its head and in the process become their biggest hit single in six years when it peaked at Number 2 in late October 1986. The fourth a final single from the In The Army Now album, such is the fate of Dreamin’ is that the most interesting thing to say about it is that it wasn’t the title track, instead a Number 15 hit single at the very tail end of the year.

16: Genesis – Land Of Confusion

It was arguably Michael Jackson’s Thriller album which set the template for promotional activity from the late 1980s onwards. Whereas before major acts confined themselves to two or maybe three single releases, the relentless parade of Jackson releases were a major factor in helping his second solo work to become the world’s biggest selling album of all time. This then informed the strategy for a number of big name acts, perhaps none more surprising than Genesis who had begun their career as the very antithesis of a singles act, their best work confined to the eight minute prog-rock epics which populated their earlier work. The album Invisible Touch was their first since Phil Collins had become a major star in his own right and that appeal undoubtedly carried itself over to his first album back with his bandmates in three years. What also helped was the succession of immaculate, appealing pop songs found onboard, five of which became hit singles over a 13 month period and which all helped Invisible Touch to become one of their most enduring releases for some time. All of which brings us to Land Of Confusion, the third hit single from the album and as chance would have it the biggest of all, its Number 14 peak in early January 1987 narrowly shading the Number 15 scaled by the title track the previous summer. A track which saw the group as close to heavy rock as they ever came, Land Of Confusion’s success was undoubtedly helped by its famous video which saw the group depicted as Spitting Image puppets, alongside some other very famous names.

15: Jaki Graham – Step Right Up

Onto less weighty matters and one of the best pure pop singles on this chart, the sixth and final hit single from Birmingham-born singer Jaki Graham who had begun her career a year earlier alongside David Grant on Could It Be I’m Falling In Love. Although the hits dried up following this hit single which neatly reached its chart peak just in time for Christmas, she continued to record and release albums until well into the 1990s. The final word is best left to her Wikipedia page which at the time of writing announces that:

Jaki’s management company have hinted at a possible 2013 UK Tour and a launch of official merchandise in the near future, as well as a range of sex toys.

14: Berlin – Take My Breath Away

You’ll never listen to Round And Round in the same way again, trust me. Sorry, where were we? Oh yes, Top Gun, the big hit film of the moment and the one which turned Tom Cruise into a full blown superstar, introduced Val Kilmer to the world and briefly made Kelly McGillis an icon. Core to the film’s appeal was its impressive soundtrack, scored by Harold Faltermeyer and featuring several hit tracks with Giorgio Moroder’s influence stamped all over them. One such track was the film’s official “love theme”, handed to hitherto cult Los Angeles new wave band Berlin who subsequently found themselves on the top of the charts all over the world. Just like in Britain for example, where Take My Breath Away soared to Number One with breathtaking ease in early November, spending four weeks at the top and becoming the ninth biggest selling single of the year. It would return to the Top 10 four years later when the combination of both a TV commercial and the television premiere of Top Gun helped it back to Number 3. The other worldwide smash hit single from the film soundtrack was another Moroder composition, the Kenny Loggins track Danger Zone. British audiences were less impressed with this one and for Christmas 1986 it was at Number 67 on the charts, two weeks after having peaked at Number 45.

13: Dexy’s Midnight Runners – Because Of You

The last ever Dexy’s Midnight Runners hit single came precisely three and a half years after its immediate predecessor and was actually to all intents and purposes a Kevin Rowland solo single with the band itself having effectively disbanded following the disastrous release of their Don’t Stand Me Down album in 1985. The gentle folk ballad Because Of You is effectively immortalised forever thanks its use as the theme to tune to the hit sitcom “Brush Strokes” which was airing its first series on BBC television at this time. There would have been far worse ways for one of the 1980s’ most iconic groups to bow out though, and it actually remains a shame that this was as far as the single climbed, another track peaking nicely for the Christmas chart. With the series having long since vanished from the screens and from popular memory, Because Of You stands tall as the great forgotten Dexy’s single too, overlooked because it isn’t one of the ones about Eileen or a man we’ll meet later…

12: Gap Band – Big Fun

As far as most people (OK, make that virtually everyone) are concerned, funk outfit The Gap Band are forever defined by their 1980 hit single Oops Upside Your Head, one which over 30 years later is guaranteed to fill dancefloors with people sitting down to pretend to row a boat. And yet, to continue another theme, their highest charting single ever is actually this one, the lead single from their tenth album (the confusingly titled Gap Band 8). Stalled here at Number 12 over the Christmas holiday, Big Fun would go on to peak at Number 4 early in the new year. But it still doesn’t have a cute dance.

11: Communards – So Cold The Night

Another one from the file of ill-starred follow-up singles, So Cold The Night is actually the Communards’ second biggest hit single, the only one of Jimmy Somerville and Richard Coles’ own compositions to make the Top 10 when it peaked at Number 8 just before Christmas. Yet its major misfortune was naturally to be the immediate follow-up to their hit cover version of Don’t Leave Me This Way which had spent four weeks at Number One in early September and would eventually prove to be unchallenged as the biggest selling single of the year. Not that So Cold The Night is a band single as such, but there were far more memorable Communards tracks released as singles both before and afterwards. It is hard to shake the feeling that it went Top 10 more thanks to the momentum of its predecessor than anything else. Yet it was still Number 11 for Christmas, so fair play.

Dec 22

The ‘86 Countdown–Part Two

News headlines in Christmas week 1986 were dominated by the flight of the Rutan Voyager aircraft which became the first ever to fly completely around the world without stopping or refuelling, pilots Dick Rutan and Jeana Yeager completing the trip in 9 days, 3 minutes and 44 seconds. Meanwhile Labour leader Neil Kinnock was front page news after an altercation with two youths who had disturbed him and his wife at a South Ealing curry house and hit him over the head with a rolled up newspaper. Kinnock sent them packing, although today he would probably have just called for an independent judge-led enquiry. Jockey Lester Piggott was in tax trouble again, having to locate what we were told was a million pounds to hand over in court or face arrest, but the real question on the minds of everyone that Christmas was just what was the average music fan hoping to use to listen to the Top 40 singles on Christmas Day? And how much would it all cost them?

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30: Mel and Kim – Showing Out (Get Fresh At The Weekend)

One of Stock, Aitken and Waterman’s more notable early projects and one which marks an important step on their gradual transition from ultra-hip Hi-NRG and rare groove producers into the pop music hit factory they would become at the tail end of the decade. Mel and Kim Appleby were sisters from London although it was originally Mel who was supposed to be a solo star, recording demo tracks in search of a record deal after a brief career glamour modelling. The addition of her older sister on co-vocals proved to be the missing bit of magic and after signing with Supreme records they were teamed with the nascent hit production team. Pete Waterman at first envisaged them as classy soul stars, recording the slick and sophisticated track System for their first single release. When the team retired to a local pub during a break in the sessions the Appleby sisters famously let their hair down in front of their producers for the first time and transformed into a pair of brash, cheeky, hilarious loudmouths. It was at that moment Waterman realised they were charging down completely the wrong path. System was relegated to the b-side and in its place was inserted the upbeat party track Showing Out (originally written for and rejected by Bananarama so the legend goes) as the girls sang about their reluctance to allow anything to get between them and Saturday night. A notable single for its time, the track stirred in influences of the Chicago house style which was by then starting to permeate underground clubs, yet as far as the charts were concerned it was quite simply a bright, brilliant pop track tailor made for both discos and Radio One. Showing Out (Get Fresh At The Weekend) made a slow start, taking six weeks to reach the Top 40 following its September release, but it would subsequently peak inside the Top 3 and become a grand opening to what would ultimately be the pair’s rather tragically short career.

29: Cliff Richard and Sarah Brightman – All I Ask Of You

Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s tour-de-force musical Phantom Of The Opera had made its bow during 1986 and as was more or less de-rigueur at the time had spawned a handful of hit singles via some rather unexpected routes. The show’s signature tune had been a Top 10 hit at the very start of the year, sung by Sarah Brightman alongside the unusual choice of Steve Harley whose demos had contributed to the development of the project but who to his disgust was binned from the final production when it became clear the libretto was moving towards a more operatic style which would have been beyond his range as a rock star. The musical opened in October but unusually the next song from the show to chart also featured a male star un-associated with the original cast. Inserted into the role of Raoul for the centrepiece ballad All I Ask Of You was Cliff Richard, whose name value at least helped the song to a Number 3 peak just as Phantom made its stage premiere with immaculate timing. The true male star of the show, Michael Crawford, would not make his chart bow until early 1987 when the original cast recording version of Music Of The Night was released as a single and made Number 7 to match the peak of the Steve Harley single a year earlier.

28: Kim Wilde – You Keep Me Hangin’ On

After three successful albums released through RAK records, second generation star Kim Wilde had switched labels and switched her image too for the release of 1984 album Teases & Dares but although the resulting collection was largely positively received, the big hit singles failed to flow, although the 1985 release Rage To Love had at least given her a first Top 20 hit in three years. Strange to think then that a year later she would be enjoying the biggest international smash hit of her career. A cover of the Supremes classic, the Kim Wilde version of You Keep Me Hangin’/ On was as radical a reworking imaginable, replacing the signature Motown stomp of the original with an energetic pop-rock arrangement, a consequence it was said of her brother Ricky on production duties being unfamiliar with the original and thus taking the song in his own preferred direction. Released in late October 1986, the single shot to Number 2 here (matching her career best peak last scaled five years earlier by her debut hit Kids In America) but perhaps even more significantly the following summer You Keep Me Hangin’ On was lodged firmly at the top of the Hot 100 in America, making her the last solo British female to top the US charts until Leona Lewis repeated the trick in 2008. The icing on the cake for the brother and sister team was apparently a telegram from the song’s composer Lamont Dozier who thanked them for turning his song into a hit once more and simply making him look so good.

27: Pretenders – Hymn To Her

A turbulent period in the early 1980s, complete with the death of two of their members within a year of each other, had threatened to bring The Pretenders to a grinding halt. Although the band reassembled with new recruits for 1984 album Learning To Crawl, an appearance at Live Aid the following year marked effectively the final curtain for the first version of the group. Hence their next album Get Close was recorded by Chrissie Hynde with an entirely new line-up of musicians (and at times little more than session players), a move which just happened to give the group a major shot in the arm. The first single from the album was Don’t Get Me Wrong which during the autumn had reached Number 10 and become the first Pretenders single to climb that high in the charts for five years. The follow-up fared even better. Hymn To Her was a gorgeous, heart-breaking ode to motherhood and everything that comes with it, written by Chrissie Hynde’s former schoolmate Meg Keene. The gentle gospel feel of the track made it a perfect choice for a pre-Christmas single although the single was at this stage just starting out its chart life, three weeks into a run which would eventually see it peak at Number 8 in early February 1987, to this day their third biggest hit single ever. Something of a forgotten classic these days, which is a shame as it actually ranks as one of the greatest ever Pretenders hits. In this writer’s humble opinion anyway.

26: George Benson – Shiver

Aside from a brief cameo on a Mary J Blige hit 12 years later, Shiver stands proud as the final Top 40 hit for George Benson, a virtuoso jazz guitarist who oddly found his greatest run of commercial success in the 1980s when he turned soul singer and landed worldwide smash hits with R&B hits such as Give Me The Night and the epic ballad In Your Eyes. Shiver was taken from his While The City Sleeps album and saw him back in more familiar jazz-funk territory although the track had enough radio airplay and popular appeal to climb as high as Number 19, his best chart run since the aforementioned In Your Eyes had reached Number 7 three years earlier.

25: Eurythmics – The Miracle Of Love

More b-roll material here, a 1986 Eurythmics track which was the ill-starred follow-up to the acknowledged classic Thorn In My Side. A slick and sophisticated ballad, The Miracle Of Love was once again the kind of single which was the obvious choice for an attack on the Christmas market but which ultimately struggled to make any kind of impact, peaking a week after Christmas at a lowly Number 23. Whilst we didn’t know it at the time, Thorn In My Side would wind up the last Eurythmics Top 10 hit to date, their material for the rest of the decade struggling to live up the pedigree of earlier classics as Dave and Annie moved further away from their electronic roots with ever diminishing commercial returns, despite the consistent quality of their music. The Miracle Of Love can in that sense be seen as the very start of a regrettable downward slope.

24: Ray Moore – Oh My Father Had A Rabbit

The singles chart of Christmas 1986 had more than its fair share of novelty hit singles, but with my broadcasters hat on there was possibly none more memorable than this entirely appropriate monument to a sadly missed radio legend. Having started out as a continuity announcer, first for a variety of ITV companies and then the BBC, Ray Moore spent the 1980s as the host of the early breakfast show on Radio 2, more than anyone else in the slot ever establishing the principle that anyone up and about at 5am is seeking solidarity in the lunacy of the hour. Ray Moore’s even lengthening handovers with breakfast host Terry Wogan were even at the time the stuff of legend and whilst BBC Radio 2 was at the time a long way removed from the mainstream ratings juggernaut it is today, the man who could switch effortlessly between smooth BBC tones and his own native scouse accent was one of the most recognisable voices in the country. His hit single Oh My Father Had A Rabbit can actually rank as the first ever Children In Need tie-in, a two minute nonsense verse narrated by the presenter as an anthem for his “Bog Eyed Jog” event which formed part of the charity appeal in 1986, the single peaking here at Number 24 just in time for Christmas. He attempted a chart return the following year with a more straightforward single also called Bog Eyed Jog but one which failed to progress beyond Number 61 but by that time Ray Moore’s career was winding sadly down. Having contracted throat cancer earlier in the year, he was eased out of his show in 1988 and died a year later at the tragically young age of 47. A true gentleman, a broadcasting giant and a man who inspired countless others who have followed in his footsteps, it seems only appropriate that he is immortalised in this manner with the silliest hit single of its era.

23: Swing Out Sister – Breakout

This was the instantly memorable debut hit single for sophisti-pop trio Swing Out Sister, led by the charismatic Corinne Drewery, and whose blend of smooth jazz, pop and soul filled a string of memorable hit albums during the late 80s and early 90s and led to a touring career which continues to this day. Lifted from their debut album It’s Better To Travel, the brassy and catchy Breakout had peaked at Number 4 in early December and was by this stage on its way out, slowly enough to be joined on the Top 40 by follow-up Surrender which hit the charts in early January 1987.

22: Spitting Image – Santa Claus Is On The Dole

A second novelty hit, this the fondly-remembered follow-up to The Chicken Song which had been a surprise Number One hit earlier in 1986. After a slow start two years earlier, satirical TV show Spitting Image had grown into a huge success, its twice-yearly series on Sunday nights on ITV a fondly remembered cultural fixture of the time. Each episode of latex lampoonery (as the press branded it) climaxed with a song, most written by composer Philip Pope with lyrical contributions from the rest of the team and these musical moments had proven so popular they were compiled into an album Spit In Your Ear from which the earlier Number One hit had been taken. Santa Claus Is On The Dole was an ever-topical account of how “Father Christmas has been sacked and his gnomes are all redundant” and how “..real fairy cake and Rudolph steak” would be his Christmas dinner. As fun as it would have been to find it on Spotify, I’m kind of glad of an excuse to embed the video here – actually taken from the TV show and differing slightly to the single which was in the shops, but if nothing else it is fun to watch the credits roll and note the comedy and satirical royalty who at the time were just starting their careers on one of the greatest comedy shows of the 80s. This isn’t the last we’ll hear of them during the course of this chart countdown either.

21: Nick Kamen – Each Time You Break My Heart

One of the most famous examples of “this guy looks great, can he sing a little?”, Nick Kamen started out as a male model, his Presley-esque looks gracing the covers of magazines such as The Face and endless photo stories in teenage weeklies before he was propelled almost by accident to mainstream stardom thanks to his role in the seminal Levis 501s TV commercial which saw him strip down to his boxer shorts in a 1950s launderette, all to the soundtrack of I Heard It Through The Grapevine. Snapped up by WEA records who smelled a potential goldmine, he lucked out again after being handed a track which had been originally intended for Madonna’s True Blue album but which was discarded in favour of what composers Madonna and Stephen Bray felt were stronger tracks. Instead Nick Kamen was given Each Time You Break My Heart more or less ready mixed, his single version essentially the True Blue recording with Madonna’s lead vocals deleted and Kamen’s added in their place, although she can still be heard as part of the chorus. Whilst the TV commercial connection helped the track to become a sizeable UK hit, hitting Number 5 in early December, the Madonna link turned Each Time You Break My Heart into a huge worldwide success, turning Nick Kamen into major star across Europe. Whilst none of his subsequent singles made all that much of an impact on these shores, he remained an icon on the continent until well into the 1990s.

Dec 21

The ‘86 Countdown–Part One

Distractions, such as writing books (have I mentioned there is a book recently?) haven’t left much time free for looks back at old chart countdowns of the past, but regular readers of these pages will be aware that it is something of a December tradition to mark the final days before Christmas with a seasonal chart of yore. Over the past few years I’ve written about 1988, 1995, 1992 and 1999 but this year just for a change I thought I’d go back a little further in time.

Just for a change this isn’t a Top 40 show I actually kept a tape of at the time (although a copy of the broadcast is in circulation amongst collectors) but the final countdown of 1986 is one which I still have rather fond memories of. For the 13 year old me it was the final awakening of an obsession that has stayed with me for the rest of my life (anticipating as I was a particular chart record which was set that week) but it is actually a quite intriguing countdown for other reasons. This was a Top 40 which featured song from some very big names indeed, but aside from a few notable exceptions they were all singles which history records as very much the b-material, the ‘other’ hits that came out in between or in some cases after their classics. All were worthy chart hits, some are a pleasure to revisit but by and large this is very much the ‘forgotten’ chart of the mid-1980s.

Time then to count down the hits of the Christmas Chart of 1986, all links below pointing to the relevant place in the Spotify catalogue if the urge takes you to hear the songs again in full.

40: Spandau Ballet – Through The Barricades

To start with, a single from earlier in the autumn which was finally burning itself out this week. Through The Barricades was the title track of Spandau Ballet’s fifth album, one which in all fairness marked the start of their steady commercial decline as one of the quintessential acts of the early 1980s found themselves out of step and out of fashion, reduced instead to playing to a dwindling crowd of die-hard supporters. Still, there were worse ways to go out, their final Top 10 hit being a five and a half minute epic tale of love and hopelessness across the sectarian divide in Northern Ireland. Weighty matters for a pop record for sure and perhaps not a patch on their classics from earlier in the decade but it apparently remains the composition of which Tony Hadley is most proud. Taken in isolation Through The Barricades is a magnificent, towering pop record – but for the band who recorded True it was merely the start of a gentle slide towards the exit.

39: Five Star – If I Say Yes

Another hit on the way out, but arguably our first example of b-material, a largely forgotten follow-up to a much more famous hit. The fourth single to be released from the Pearson family’s Silk And Steel album, If It Say Yes had the unfortunate task of following Rain Or Shine, their biggest ever hit single and the very pinnacle of their popular appeal. As such this single, released in early November, was a lowly Number 15 hit, their first in five releases to miss the Top 10 and their lowest charting single in a year. Although nobody knew it at the time, Five Star were another act about to start circling the drain although the rapid expiration of their popular appeal would take another year to become apparent.

38: Anita Baker – Sweet Love

Having started her career in the 1970s as a member of funk outfit Chapter 8, American soul singer Anita Baker went solo in 1983 and hit commercial paydirt three years later with her second album Rapture and her greatest ever hit single Sweet Love. A Top 10 hit in America, the smooth soul track peaked at a perfectly respectable Number 13 in late November and was gently exiting the Top 40 by the time Christmas rolled around. Oddly enough however it was her one and only Top 40 hit single in Britain, further singles (the last as late as 1994) all fell short of duplicating the success of Sweet Love. The song itself would however continue to have a life of its own, returning as a Top 3 hit single for forgotten girl group Fierce in February 2000.

37: Bangles – Walk Like An Egyptian

Funny how some things stick in your mind isn’t it? I’ve not heard the recording for almost three decades but I can still vividly recall Bruno Brookes announcing that the Bangles “turn and walk two places” as they opened the Christmas Top 40 show on Radio One by rebounding back up the singles chart as part of what would turn out to be an extended burn-out. Penned by noted songwriter Liam Sternberg, Walk Like An Egyptian had already been rejected by Toni Basil when producer David Kahne suggested it as a track for the second Bangles album A Different Light. Despite following classic singles Manic Monday and If She Knew What She Wants in their sequence of single releases, Walk Like An Egyptian became far and away the biggest of all, the fun track and its iconic video becoming a genuine pop culture phenomenon in the final months of 1986 with the single topping the American charts and becoming a Top 3 hit in this country.

Strangely enough the track almost caused a huge schism within the group which had always been viewed by the four girls as an equal ensemble with lead vocals shared between them all. Unable to decide who should sing the track, Kahne recorded all four of the group singing the track, the final edit featuring Vicki Peterson, Michael Steele and Susannah Hoffs taking turns on verses, with only drummer Debbie Peterson relegated to backing vocals much to her chagrin. Worse was to come when the video for the track was produced. Although she professed to be unaware she was being shown in close up at that moment, during the verse sung by Susannah Hoffs she rolled her eyes to the side and with one look gave the world a truly iconic image:

image

With one look the entire world fell in love with her and from that moment on Hoffs was the de-facto star of the Bangles, pushed to the fore in the minds of the media, even if the group continued to insist on sharing vocal duties equally.

36: Red Box – For America

Funny how some songs can define for you a time and an era in your life more than any of its contemporaries. For me it is this hit single from Red Box, the second chart hit to be taken from their highly acclaimed (yet today all but overlooked) debut album The Circle And The Square. Stuck “in development” for several years, the duo of Simon Toulson-Clarke and Julian Close finally hit the jackpot in 1985 with the worldwide smash hit Lean On Me, the success of which finally made their album a viable commercial prospect. Mixing new wave, art rock and even world rhythms all in one glorious whole and with many tracks featuring an ensemble choir of friends and collaborators (rumoured to also include Buffy actor Anthony Head), the album remains to this day a quite extraordinary listen. Its second hit single (arriving a full year after the first) was actually a sarcastic response to a record company request that the pair included a track “for American radio”. For America was thus a satirical comment on the style over substance of American media with some barbs thrown at military campaigns in Greneda and Nicaragua, all wrapped up in a patriotic-sounding marching band anthem. It is far and away one of the cleverest, most artfully made pop records this side of imperial phase Pet Shop Boys. To add to the irony the single was never a hit in America but made a splash across Europe, reaching Number 10 in this country in late November. Strained relations with their label meant that Red Box went on hiatus in 1987 with Close moving into A&R work instead. Toulson-Clarke returned with a new Red Box album in 1990 with a third following a full 20 year later in October 2010, although we still await a follow-up hit.

35: Paul McCartney – Only Love Remains

Sadly these days it is all too easy to see a Paul McCartney solo single and picture the sadly deteriorated old man whose Olympic appearance in 2012 demonstrated to the world that his singing abilities deserted him 25 years ago. Happily this single predates the era, lifted from his Press To Play album which may not necessarily rank amongst his classics but which was notable for a deliberate attempt by the former Beatle to update his sound, notably through the recruitment of the then in-demand Hugh Padgham on production duties. Only Love Remains was its fourth and final single, the follow-up to Pretty Little Head which had made waves in late October by missing the Top 75 altogether. This gentle ballad fared slightly better, but its Top 40 run was brief and unmemorable.

34: Lionel Richie – Ballerina Girl

Another all but forgotten single from a major chart superstar, the third track lifted from Richie’s Dancing On The Ceiling album. Whilst the title track had become a deserved worldwide smash hit, sounding fresh and exciting to this day, its chart successors were less well received. Love Will Conquer All failed to conquer the Top 40, peaking at Number 45 late October and the gentle Ballerina Girl had a similarly slow start, theoretically released for the Christmas market but only selling enough to register as a Top 40 new entry on this particular chart. The early weeks of 1987 were however slightly kinder to the single and it continued to climb, peaking at Number 17 in its fifth week on-sale. But still nobody remembers it – because it isn’t Dancing On The Ceiling.

33: Paul Simon – The Boy In The Bubble

A similar story here. What tracks do people remember from Paul Simon’s seminal Graceland album? The title track, You Can Call Me Al, Diamonds On The Soles Of Her Shoes to name but three. All but overlooked is The Boy In The Bubble, its second and final chart single which was also here on its way up, climbing seven places on its way to a Number 26 peak in early January. How does it go again?

32: Cameo – Candy

Once more, think of Cameo in 1986 and what do you recall? Larry Blackmon’s codpiece and Word Up of course. How many people remember this single, the follow-up to that career-defining smash hit and a Number 27 hit in early December? Back And Forth would restore them to the Top 20 later in 1987.

31: Gary Moore – Over The Hills And Far Away

Gary Moore’s eighth studio album was Wild Frontier, a record made both in the shadow of the death of former Thin Lizzy bandmate Phil Lynott at the start of 1986 but also a trip back to his native Belfast which made the rock guitarist re-examine his Celtic roots and work those influences into his music. Preceding the album came one of his more notable hit singles, a thundering, energetic Celtic rock track featuring fiddles, guitars as bagpipes, and a driving, marching drum track all topped by a virtuoso guitar performance from the man himself. The tale of the man wrongly accused of murder but whose alibi would destroy his friend’s marriage remains an exciting listen to this day and after spending a fortnight locked here at Number 31 over Christmas would eventually be lifted to a Number 20 peak early in the new year. The positive reception for the album led Gary Moore’s record label to push him further down a heavy rock direction, resulting in 1989s After The War album which he himself found so dissatisfying that he instead turned back to the Blues, reinventing himself totally for the rest of his life and career.