If you’ve spent any amount of time on the internet you’ll likely have heard comments about the state of the music industry today. Specifically that music today just isn’t as good and the old days (however old these days are can depend upon the person) were just so much better. Some will try and say that there was nothing wrong with music back then. Look on YouTube comments from songs pre-2005 or so that were bashed by the critics – you’ll see many comment about how this song is part of ‘the good old days’, even if nobody liked it at the time.
This isn’t to say that these people were completely lying about the state of pop music back in, say, the 1980s – obviously there were so many gems from those older eras. But there was also a LOT of trash, songs that were embarrassing and dated even when they were released - not to mention that even modern years can have some really cracking tunes in it. And even though every year has quite a bit of good music released in it it's quite rare that the very best reach the coveted position atop the charts. Only a handful of songs can become number ones – and their success isn’t always an indication of their quality, especially in the UK where novelty songs and the like are very frequent chart toppers.
To prove it, I’ll be going through every single song that topped the charts in the United Kingdom, from 1980 (where my knowledge of pop music starts to flourish) up until 2009 (where I really stopped listening to the charts - if I carried on further I feel I'd get REALLY biased). 30 years of music, nearly 700 songs – this is gonna be a roller coaster. We’ll be breaking these down by year, discussing one year of hits in one blog post, as well as summing up that year and the best and worst number 1 of that year at the end.
Also, to lay my cards down on the table, I should point out that I’m a man in his twenties whose music tastes err towards hard rock and heavy metal. Having said that I won’t be one to dismiss a good pop song out of hand, so I’ll be discussing lots of lighter songs, some that I dislike but others that I really love. Also keep in mind that I’m not a professional critic (my head isn’t far enough up my arse for that); I’m just a guy who likes music. If I trash a song you really love or vice versa don’t take it too personally, it’s just my silly opinions. So here we go. And don’t try this at home...
- Another Brick in the Wall (Part II) – Pink Floyd – 5 weeks, December 9th 1979 to January 12th 1980
Whilst this song first became number one in 1979 (Christmas number one at that) it would feel amiss of me to not discuss this as it held the top spot for a couple of weeks in 1980. And it still remains an utter anthem today – it may be far from the most complex of Pink Floyd’s discography but it’s still infectious with its almost disco like drumming and dark yet epic guitar solo that dominates the last half of the song. And you can’t not mention the children’s choir, fitting for the lyrical themes of rebelling against the strict education system. Providing a sense of anarchy and disrepute, the choir add so much to make the idea of a youth rebellion seem real. This song will really make you feel that you don’t need no education (though that does in fact mean that you do need education).
- Brass in Pocket – The Pretenders – 2 weeks, January 13th to January 26th
The song that launched Chrissie Hynde and company into the stratosphere, this song all over has a wonderful sense of swagger to it. The drum beat grooves along throughout the three minute runtime whilst the slick guitar riff is bound to get stuck in your head in all the right ways. Hynde meanwhile proves herself to be a brilliant vocalist, bringing a sense of great confidence to the lyrics that seem to be achieving something for the first time. Add on the hard rocking chords that join in the second chorus and you have a wonderfully empowering song.
- The Special A.K.A. Live (Too Much Too Young) – The Special A.K.A. featuring Rico – 2 weeks, January 27th to February 9th
Infectiousness is the name of the game in the songs of this ska band. Whilst the whole live EP hit the top spot the focus is put on lead song Too Much Too Young which rockets along in its tight two minute runtime and doesn’t stop to take prisoners. Lead singer Terry Hall manages to put you in a great mood even with the lyrics that are somewhat less positive – a woman having a kid at too young an age. The bouncy keyboard riffs, excellent backing vocals and the fun and funky chorus help to make this a wonderfully dancey and enjoyable number.
- Coward of the County – Kenny Rogers – 2 weeks, February 10th to February 23rd
Disclaimer: I’m not a fan of country music, so my perspective may be a little biased here. That doesn’t stop the fact that this song is very maudlin, annoyingly slow and downbeat and Rogers’ vocals are very dull, even with a lyrical story that on the surface is interesting, about how a boy who’s not physically strong and is a bit of a coward getting his vengeance upon a group of brothers who mistreated his girlfriend. Those interesting themes are marred by how utterly nondescript the music and Kenny’s vocal delivery is. And the song is just far too long, going on and scarcely going anywhere for all of its four and a half minute duration. Even throwing in some key changes just can’t change how monotonous this number is.
- Atomic – Blondie – 2 weeks, February 24th to March 8th
Blondie is a band that have shown themselves to be adept in a number of different genres and Atomic continues to show this, a song that delves into disco themes not too dissimilar to their previous number 1 Heart of Glass. Debbie Harry once again proves herself to be a fantastic vocalist and though the music is relatively simple it manages to become a brilliant ear worm; the drums pound along in true disco style, the keyboard riffs have a slightly dark futuristic tone to them and the guitars twang almost like they belong in a Western. These may sound like they contrast too much but they all come together very well in Atomic. Though it perhaps lasts slightly too long it’s still a more than worthy addition to Blondie’s discography.
- Together We Are Beautiful – Fern Kinney – 1 week, March 9th to March 15th
Disco never truly died in the UK in the same manner it imploded in the US as can be evidenced by this next song. Unfortunately it’s plodding and slow, with its four minute runtime feeling quite a bit longer. The lyrics are also very sappy and lovey dovey, which is only made worse by Kinney’s singing voice, a horribly childish squeaky intonation that’ll make you simultaneously bored and nauseated, especially late in the song when she tries to reach for very high notes with painful results. I wouldn't bother with this one if I were you.
- Going Underground/Dreams of Children – The Jam – 3 weeks, March 16th to April 5th
The Jam had released a couple of top 10 albums in the 70s and had a top 10 hit with The Eton Rifles in 1979 but they really became a household name in the 1980s with this double A-side. Going Underground really needs no introduction – an absolute glorious riff that compliments the additional keyboard added midway through the song and the pounding drums, whilst Paul Weller’s vocals will make you feel wonderfully aggressive – it’s a song that’s able to beautifully show the aesthetic of The Jam, taking punk and adding a more polished sound to it. The lesser known double A-side track Dreams of Children meanwhile is a bit slower and more restrained, though it doesn’t make it any less worthy, especially with the glorious bass riff that runs throughout and a hard thrashing guitar riff; this helps to make it a worthy pairing to Going Underground.
- Working My Way Back to You – Detroit Spinners – 2 weeks, April 6th to April 19th
Disco continues to prove that it’s not slouchy on the UK charts with this very fun track, a cover of the song by the Four Seasons whilst interpolating Forgive Me Girl by Michael Zager. It certainly feel strange that The Spinners were able to return the top after their real peak in popularity but I’m glad they did as this track is greatly uplifting with its groovy drums and well used string and brass sections. Lead singer Henry Fambrough is very solid and though a key change at the end is a little off it doesn’t stop this track from being very entertaining.
- Call Me – Blondie – 1 week, April 20th to April 26th
It was really in the 1980s that the breakaway pop song from a film began to become a really big deal. Not many people really remember the Richard Gere vehicle American Gigolo but everybody knows this absolute classic that came from it. Producer Giorgio Moroder broke through on this record that delivers a galloping drum and guitar riff and a driving keyboard beat. Debbie Harry delivers a powerhouse performance, delivering a seductive menace to the song and making you feel that there are darker undertones to this mostly upbeat song. Add in a chorus that I defy you not to chant along to and we have Blondie’s magnum opus – even listening to the full eight minute version from the American Gigolo is far from a chore, which shows what a complete blast Call Me is.
- Geno – Dexy’s Midnight Runners – 2 weeks, April 27th to May 10th
Contrary to popular belief Dexy’s Midnight Runners was not a one-hit wonder, at least not in the UK. Geno demonstrates just how underrated this band is. The song grooves along finely, with a strong reliance upon the saxophone which helps to make it stand out, and the solo from the sax is simple but very effective in setting the mood. The verses have a wonderful swing to it whilst the chorus speeds up and still is greatly funky. Lead singer Kevin Rowland delivers a fine performance too, leading to a fun song that pales in comparison to a certain future big hit but still proves Dexy’s mettle.
- What’s Another Year – Johnny Logan – 2 weeks, May 11th to May 24th
Oh, Eurovision. The perennial home of the cheesiest of music from Europe. We’ll be seeing a fair few Eurovision bands over this period, starting with this Irish winner. This song is pretty standard Eurovision cheese, a sappy ballad about a man waiting for a girl to fall in love with him. Logan isn’t the worst of vocalists and the music isn’t too terrible, with a decent saxophone backdrop. However, none of this sticks out at all, leading to a number that you’ll forget the moment you stop listening to it.
- Theme from M*A*S*H (Suicide Is Painless) – The Mash – 3 weeks, May 25th to June 14th
I have absolutely no idea why the theme from the seminal war-comedy film/TV series M*A*S*H decided to rise to the top of the charts in 1980 – sure the show was popular but it just seemed like a sudden rise to the top – had it topped the charts in 1983 when M*A*S*H ended it would have made more sense. Nonetheless this song is a seminal classic; whilst it’s light on instrumentation the lyrics are gloomy and effective for the Korean War setting of the series and the vocal harmonies add to the dark tone of the song. It’s simple but it works for the content of the song, leading to a haunting number that works very well for M*A*S*H.
- Crying – Don McLean – 3 weeks, June 15th to July 5th
Anybody get the feeling that Don McLean peaked far too early with American Pie? Whilst that song is one of the biggest classics in rock of all time, his repertoire in the future hasn’t been as sterling. Crying represents just how uninteresting he could get; a cover of a song by Roy Orbison, this song slugs along with a boring instrumental backing and horribly oversentimental lyrics. McLean isn’t too bad of a singer, especially near the ending, but he certainly isn’t worth sitting through this utter snoozer of a song. It’s a bit less sappy than the Roy Orbison original but it’s still one to skip.
- Xanadu – Olivia Newton-John and Electric Light Orchestra – 2 weeks, July 6th to July 19th
A trend that we can see in the charts, not just in the UK but in other countries too, is that songs that aren’t generally the best work of a classic artist are the ones that end up having the biggest success. Take the Electric Light Orchestra, creator of such brilliantly cheesy pop songs as Mr. Blue Sky, Evil Woman and Livin’ Thing – it’s a shame their only trip to the top spot is this weak entry to their catalogue. Written for the infamous film of the same name (the film which alongside Village People vanity project Can’t Stop the Music inspired the Golden Raspberry Awards for the worst in film) and featuring vocals from the film's star Olivia Newton-John, this song plods along to a generic disco beat, and whilst there are some flashes of instrumental brilliance here and there the song is generally rather flat. Both Newton-John and Jeff Lynne, relegated to backing vocals, do fairly well but both have done much better work. It’s a shame then that a band as lively and fun as ELO had their biggest chart success with one of the weaker tracks in their discography.
- Use It Up and Wear It Out – Odyssey – 2 weeks, July 20th to August 2nd
Disco once again rears its head on this track by New York based group that may just sum up just how stale the genre had gotten by this point. It’s a track that stomps along to a solid beat and a decent instrumental that features horns and a slick guitar riff, as well as what appears to be a slide whistle at certain points. The vocals are OK, absolutely nothing to write home about, and the lyrics are rather banal and generic partying songs. The worst thing about the song is just how long and repetitive it feels – despite being only slightly over four minutes it feels like it goes on for ages. Ultimately it’s a very generic disco track that doesn’t stand out at all and is forgotten as soon as you’ve finished the song. No wonder disco died in the States…
- The Winner Takes It All – ABBA – 2 weeks, August 3rd to August 16th
ABBA are generally regarded as being a very cheesy band and I’m inclined to agree with their general goofiness. However, when Benny and Bjorn got good with their songwriting they could be really excellent. The Winner Takes It All is really a sign of their skills as it takes on the end of a romance (whether or not it was inspired by the divorce of Benny and Agnetha is disputed) and it really works. The music is among the more melancholy of ABBA’s repertoire giving the song the sad spirit that it really works and it’s very complimentary of Agnetha’s soaring vocals. This all adds up to what is arguably the strongest song of ABBA’s discography and was a clear sign that ABBA was really maturing.
- Ashes to Ashes – David Bowie – 2 weeks, August 17th to August 30th
The cliché that David Bowie was a complete musical chameleon kept on proving itself time and time again – following three relatively Avant Garde albums in the form of the Berlin Trilogy Bowie decided to go poppier on the follow up Scary Monsters and makes a brilliant job of it. Ashes to Ashes is perhaps his best pure pop song – the music is generally upbeat and jaunty but hides a darker undertone which conflicts with the more mournful lyrics. Major Tom from Space Oddity makes a return and this time around he’s in a darker and reflective mood, strung out on heaven’s high and hitting an all-time low as it were. The desolate repeats of the ending refrain (“My mama said to get things done/You’d better not mess with Major Tom”) leads to a dark and contemplative spirit that helps to make this tune one of the standouts in Bowie’s extensive catalogue and was a promising sign of his work in the 80s – even though his album output suffered a bit later in the decade this shows how good he could be with a pop song.
- Start! – The Jam – 1 week, August 31st to September 6th
There’s no denying the fact that this song is a complete rip off of Taxman by The Beatles with the guitar riff and the bassline being lifted wholesale. But there are worse songs that you could rip off than that one and Paul Weller and company manage to help make this a solid if not spectacular number. The bassline, though an obvious rip off, still manages to put you into an infectious mood. The guitar solo rocks hard and Weller delivers a strong vocal performance, whilst the song just rockets along, being just over 2 minutes long and feeling even shorter than that. Though it’s not quite up there as one of The Jam’s finest, it’s still a good little number to enjoy for a quick blast.
- Feels Like I’m in Love – Kelly Marie – 2 weeks, September 7th to September 20th
More disco? Seriously? I thought up until now that your corpse was decomposing by the 1980s. This is another one that’s just too generic to stand out, with a very standard issue beat and lyrics that seem like they’ve been lifted from a better song. Though there’s a bit of energy with a synthesiser breakdown following the second verse and Kelly Marie is not a bad vocalist this song is ultimately just not interesting enough to grab your attention and like numerous disco songs it has a serious issue of ending up feeling too long for its own good, even though it’s scarcely over three minutes. I wouldn’t bother with this one.
- Don’t Stand So Close to Me – The Police – 4 weeks, September 21st to October 18th, biggest selling song of the year
The days when a band as brilliant as The Police could make a song that would be the biggest selling of the year are those that I wish I could have been around in, especially if it’s in a song as tight and haunting as Don’t Stand So Close to Me. The gloomy keyboard intro gives away to a slightly sinister main riff from guitarist Andy Summers before going into the lyrics, an account of a student harbouring a crush on her teacher with the feelings being reciprocated. Sting is of course in the forefront with his vocals being on point as always whilst his lyrics are as always very poetic – not many hit songs reference Lolita, after all (“Just like the old man in/That book by Nabokov”). This is a song that manages to be somewhat haunting and sinister and yet can get stuck in your head by how catchy it is.
- Woman in Love – Barbara Streisand – 3 weeks, October 19th to November 8th
Like with disco itself common knowledge would have you believe that the Bee Gees never did anything of any worth following 1979. Sure, their output as the Bee Gees diminished a great deal but the Brothers Gibb were still greatly active throughout the 1980s, mainly writing for other artists, seen with songs like Heartbreaker by Dionne Warwick and Islands in the Stream by Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton. Barbara Streisand was a notable example of this, with Barry having a writing credit on every single song on Streisand’s 1980 album Guilty (hell, he’s even on the album’s cover), which was a massive commercial success. This shows then that though they would never reach the heights of Saturday Night Fever ever again the Bee Gees were still staying alive in the 80s. (That joke was terrible, I’ll see myself out…)
The sheen of the Bee Gees is all over Woman in Love, with the song sounding not too dissimilar to Too Much Heaven with its tempo and instrumentation and even the key change right at the end. Streisand’s vocals alone are pretty good but the best part of the song is the first chorus which features excellent layered vocals which help contribute to the Bee Gees spirit of the track. Though it’s not the most thrilling of songs it’s still not a bad one at all and it proves how the Gibbs were still able to craft a solid pop song even after their heyday was up.
- The Tide Is High – Blondie – 2 weeks, November 9th to November 22nd
Blondie doesn’t really get enough credit for their ridiculous amounts of experimentation in different genres – though ostensibly a new wave band they’ve dabbled all over the place, particularly in the later stages of their original career, with disco (Heart of Glass), rap (Rapture) and calypso (Island of Lost Souls) all being tackled by them. The Tide Is High sees them experimenting with reggae but it’s by far the weakest of their six UK number one singles. The lyrics are rather corny and Debbie Harry really doesn’t get the chance to show off her vocal skills, being surprisingly downbeat this time, especially when compared to the majesty of her vocals in Call Me. Musically it plods along aimlessly through its runtime and the reggae instrumentation become intrusive and rather annoying. Add on the endless repetition of the chorus at the end and you have what might be Blondie’s worst single release. A shame as we’ve seen only this year just how fantastic they are.
- Super Trouper – ABBA – 3 weeks, November 23rd to December 13th
The Winner Takes It All may have indicated a more melancholy direction to ABBA but Super Trouper proved that their sound wasn’t about to dive deep into doom and gloom just yet (we’d have to wait until The Visitors for that to happen). Super Trouper isn’t nearly as good as The Winner Takes It All, with the vocals being far less impressive (the backing vocals in the chorus from the men can get on your nerves rather quickly) and the music being a little too sugary in how upbeat it is, but ultimately it’s a good sign of how ABBA could craft a well written pop song that’ll be able to put a smile upon your face.
- (Just Like) Starting Over – John Lennon – 1 week, December 14th to December 20th
There perhaps was not a celebrity death in the 1980s as shocking and devastating as the murder of John Lennon. One of the founding members of arguably the biggest pop group of all time – gone in a flash at only 40 years old. Naturally the mourning had huge effects on the charts, with his latest album Double Fantasy rising to the top of the album charts (subsequently winning a Grammy for Album of the Year) and with lead single (Just Like) Starting Over, which had begun to slip down the charts since its release in October, jumping right back up to number 1 in both the UK and the US.
(Just Like) Starting Over has a bitterly ironic quality to it in light of his murder but it doesn’t prevent the song from being perhaps the strongest song in Lennon’s very spotty solo discography. Though the intro is a bit sappy the song really kicks in with a groovy beat, with fine instrumental work making the song almost sound like that of Roy Orbison. Lennon’s delivery on this song is warming and self-reflective of how he changed as a person as he approached 40 years old and decided to reunite with Yoko Ono. Even if, like me, you don’t care for a significant amount of his solo career this is a heartwarming song and a sad but fitting tribute for him following his death. So naturally, it would hold on the top spot for a while and hold the coveted Christmas number one spot in the UK, right? After all it would be a brilliant tribute to the man to give him the biggest number 1 slot of the year, wouldn’t it?
If you thought that, you have no idea just how wrong you were.
- There’s No-One Quite Like Grandma – St. Winifred’s School Choir – 2 weeks, December 21st to January 3rd 1981
Many themes should be gleamed from this whole mad number 1 rundown from the hits over the years and the first one to notice is this – Britain can’t get enough of novelty songs. It’s a bizarre phenomenon that you really don’t see in most of the rest of the world. Take the US, for instance – Disco Duck hit the top spot in ’78 but aside from that novelty songs never come close. And this phenomenon of not particularly serious tracks denting the charts increases exponentially around Christmas time. I don’t know, maybe the joy of the season makes people more forgiving to buying utterly ridiculous items. But it really takes an utter wave of ridiculousness for the general public to plump for a novelty song for the Christmas number one over a song by a Beatle who had just been murdered. ESPECIALLY when the song in question is sung by schoolchildren.
Taking the cake for perhaps the most nauseatingly sappy UK number one single of all time, a song that makes Grandad by Clive Dunn sound like Angel of Death by Slayer, we have this shallow and manipulative attempt to pull on the heartstrings of people over the age of sixty by a choir from a Catholic primary school from Stockport. From its bouncy and horrible keyboards to the simpering and obnoxiously “cute” vocals from lead vocalist Dawn Ralph to the lyrics, so wrapped in sickly and sugary sentiment, this song is guaranteed to give you diabetes as soon as you’ve finished it. Worse, the song is annoyingly catchy, meaning you’ll have this awfully sing-songy number stuck in your head for ages afterwards, with all of those annoying little toerags belting it at you at full blast.
I’m not made of stone (couldn’t write that one down with a straight face) – I can appreciate the sentiment of showing love towards your older relatives. But I can’t appreciate that sentiment when it’s delivered in the most horrid and manipulative of ways, through the mouths of young children. As such, we get the first of what is sure to be many moments of this thought; “Britain, what the hell is wrong with you?!”
I’m gonna have to listen to Welcome Home by King Diamond now – that song is how you sing about a Grandma.
Despite ending on a song that raised my blood sugar levels to a dangerous level, 1980 was a genuinely solid year for songs hitting the top of the charts. 5 or 6 songs were swirling around for the title of the Best Number 1 and it was a really hard choice to make a pick, but that’s what happens when David Bowie, The Police, ABBA, The Pretenders, The Jam and Blondie all hit the top spot. As for the bad songs, with the exception of Grandma their biggest issue is that they’re overall unmemorable, meaning you’ll forget them as soon as the song’s finished. So yeah – not a bad year. But trust me, the good times won’t last forever.
- BEST SONG - Call Me
- WORST SONG - There's No-One Quite Like Grandma
Tune in next time for the next part where we delve deep into 1981. Hope you enjoyed this.