One of the numerous things that enrage me about the Simon Cowell-isation of popular music is how narrow and limiting it is. Getting TV stars to front catchy but forgettable froth might be something straight out of the Stock-Aitken-Waterman playbook, but it omits 1. the songwriting acumen of the SAW assembly line 2. the skill in starlets like Kylie Minogue in moving on from SAW to different markets. The Simon Cowell handbook might get passing #1s, but the whole singles market changed about 1997, or when MTV became a serious player in the UK pop market – singles would be played for weeks on the radio/MTV before they were released, so catchy things would go to #1 straight off then instantly fade away. A telling metric is that the year 2000 saw forty-three different #1s, compared to around fifteen to twenty from 1960-1998. No longer was there the slow build as people heard songs, got to like it then bought them – instead there was massive churnover. No sense of the 7″ single capturing the national mood; rather, it was just what the teen market was itching to buy.
If you actually look through the #1 singles over the past fifty years, you get a sense of the breadth of the British music taste. It is often cloyingly sentimental, but it is far more interesting than that fucking tool Cowell gives people credit for, and even occasionally daring. Here’s some of the best – unlikely under the Cowell stranglehold, but brilliant songs which show the good taste of the Great British public!
1. Frankie Goes To Hollywood, “Relax”
A song about gay sex with a video filmed in what looks like the ultimate debauched gay bar, with a simulated golden shower scene? Well, if that ain’t #1 material, I don’t know what is!
2. M/A/R/R/S, “Pump Up The Volume”
Love this – one of the first samples-only tunes, proving that innovation is no hindrance to chart success – not when it’s got a beat as irresistible as this!
3. The Specials, “Ghost Town”
Ska (through the inestimable 2 Tone record label) was popular, but this track from The Specials was hardly bouncy “Baggy Trousers” or “On My Radio” sorta stuff. Having sharpened his rapier upon Thatcher with a cover of Dylan’s “Maggie’s Farm”, lead songwriter Jerry Dammers followed up with this gloomy, even apocalyptic view of urban Britain. The song retains the reggae beat, but the vocals are sombre, while the scatting is like ghoulish voices gloating over wrack, ruin and decay.
5. Enigma, “Sadness Part 1”
Gregorian Chant? Well, why not? Works beautifully within the context of this song.
6. The Prodigy, “Firestarter”
The Prodigy evolved rapidly over their first three albums (and the fact that all three remain listenable is itself highly unusual within the dance/electronica scene, where things move really fast). They started out as XL raveheads, with breakbeats, novelty tunes (“Charley Says“) and a bouncy, fun feel. Their second, and best, is more aggressive and grimmer, yet somehow brings together ravers, crusties, indie kids, and hash-heads as it mixed big beats, big riffs and big attitude in a fantastic, creative, dense brew. The third, The Fat Of The Land, was where they broke into worldwide fame with insanely popular singles like “Firestarter” and “Breathe”, which married punk attitude and anger with electronic beats and samples. “Breathe” hasn’t aged well (the video is horribly MTV, these days), nor has The Fat Of The Land on the whole: only “Smack My Bitch Up” maintains the level of “Firestarter”. It’s one of those great singles vs consistent albums debates.
But perhaps that’s testament to the adrenaline thrill of “Firestarter”, that nothing compares: that level of sneering attitude, magnificent beats and near tangible danger hadn’t been heard since prime-era Guns N’ Roses. The public like a bit of nastiness from time to time, when it seems real and not contrived – and for the first time in nearly ten years here it was, grinning like a death’s head skull. Fucking magnificent.
Of course, there is a substantial amount of dross in the pop charts. I’m not going to argue for the merits of Bucks Fizz or Boyz II Men. But I think if you look at any year’s #1s (before 1999 at least), at least half of them will be good, and there will several fucking great ones. You can hear the soul of Britain as you go through them, in all its sentimental, occasionally tasteless, novelty-seeking, fun-seeking, tender, thrilled-to-be-here, raggedy charm.