Friday, 29 April 2011

1: The Kingsmen, “Louie Louie” (no.26, 1964)

Everything one might demand of an essential pop record: pounding rhythms, nonsense lyrics that might easily be appropriated for use of chanting on drunken nights out, a knotty guitar solo, the vaguest insinuation of misbehaviour. The recording was banned upon its first release by the then Governor of Indiana, for fear there was a call to sexual impropriety buried somewhere in the words; it may, too, be one of the few tracks on which the FBI opened a file, although - after a 31 month investigation - its final report concluded only that the single was “unintelligible at any speed” - the best damn review the record ever got.

Time and time again, “Louie Louie” restates its claim to a place in musical history, is rediscovered as a touchstone by artistes attempting to start anew. A relic from that period when (white) rock and roll was just starting to take over from (black) rhythm and blues - originally recorded by Richard Berry and the Pharaohs seven years earlier - it was there on standby as punk broke (part of the setlist at the Sex Pistols’ epochal Manchester Free Trade Hall gig), again as rap emerged (care of the Fat Boys), and then again at the dawn of the age of dance in the form of a Three Amigos remix, though we don’t talk so much about that.

The nonsense lyrics, of course, lend themselves very easily to the cause of those attempting to create a new musical language, one thus far known only to the singer, yet quickly disseminated to the listener: whatever else “Louie” is, it’s sure catchy. As for the Kingsmen themselves, they were a touring club act (apparently fronted, as this clip suggests, by the Radio One DJ Mike Smith) - another conduit, in other words, through which this most timeless of songs would pass. Yet it’s their version that gives “Louie Louie” the chaos and energy that has made it a party anthem for the ages: listen out for the stumble singer Jack Ely makes just after the guitar break (at the 2:02 mark in the above video), or the more pervasive sense matters were being hurried along, made up on the hoof, before the next set of jobbing troubadours came into the studio.

After “Louie”, The Kingsmen as we know them from this legendary recording were to squabble and disband; they were to reassemble in different permutations over the years, trying to recapture musical lightning in a bottle, and still exist as a touring outfit today, albeit as a thin shadow of their former selves: all the Kingsmen couldn’t put pop majesty like this back together again. If the band was to have no further hits in the UK, we can’t say we weren’t warned. We gotta go, they sang, in practically the only comprehensible part of the lyric; then, like the coolest fuckers at pop’s eternal party, they left.

Thursday, 28 April 2011

The Ten Worst One-Hit Wonders

In compiling this musical venture, inevitably, I had to sit through a lot of dross along the way: throwaway, once-heard-best-forgotten rubbish that somehow crept into the nation’s consciousness, tracks you can’t actually believe were committed to vinyl in the first place, shamelessly Satanic cash-ins that prove, actually, sometimes the Devil has nothing but the worst tunes. Here are the ten most egregious offenders - and I warn you you may want earplugs to hand before clicking on any links.

10. St. Winifred’s School Choir, “There’s No One Quite Like Grandma” (no.1, 1980)
Proof, if ever proof be needed, that children shouldn’t ever be let loose on the pop charts; that they should, instead, be sent to work in mines and sweatshops from a very early age. This inexplicably well-remembered track continues to recall the sounds of dying kittens and nails on a blackboard; thankfully, the choir’s burgeoning crystal meth habit stymied any chance of follow-up success.

9. Colour Girl, “Can’t Get Used to Losing You” (no.31, 2000)
Was there ever a more lumpen and artless cultural development than two-step garage? This mercifully low-ranking offering crams down a kebab before letting rip with a massive musical fart all over one of Andy Williams’ finest four minutes.

8. Su Pollard, “Starting Together” (no.2, 1986)
Because, well… JUST LOOK AT HER. An anomaly at the time of release - I simply refuse to sanction Pollard’s previous Top 75 hit “Come to Me (I Am Woman)” - “Starting Together” now seems fundamentally wrong on every level, from the cheap and tawdry use of Christmas bells to the accompanying promo video’s deployment of the 1980s’ least sexy and glamorous wedding photographs. From an album entitled “The Marriage”, you’ll note. An unhappy one, most likely.

7. Frankee, “F.U.R.B (F U Right Back)” (no.1, 2004)
One half of the R’n’B world’s most colossally tedious lovers’ tiff. Frankee’s erstwhile beau Eamon (who’d charted with “F*** It (I Don’t Want U Back)” a few months before) at least had the wherewithal to have another hit, thus excusing him from this list, but “F.U.R.B.” (basically: “You were a well rubbish boyfriend, you have a tiny manhood, I’ve got a proper man now, he’s, like, got his own car and everything blah blah blah”) stuck around in the charts for aaaaaaaaaages, like the world’s s**test answerphone message, annoying the brain off of any sane listener who simply COULDN’T HAVE CARED LESS by this point. Eventually knocked off the top spot by my own recording “B.O.Y.F.O.R.N. (Both of You F*** Off Right Now)”.

6. Sporty Thievz, “No Pigeons” (no.21, 1999)
More from the bulging “bellend R‘n‘B” file: a purported answer song to TLC’s “No Scrubs”, in which the female singers railed against hopeless, jobless blokes trying to scrounge off them. Here, in a radical reversal you could never have seen coming, a trio of hopeless, jobless blokes whine about the failings of women who won’t let them into their pants, for some reason. At the risk of setting myself up as some kind of referee in this gender war, all I’ll say is: at least pigeons can sing properly.

5. Ashley Hamilton, “Wimmin’” (no.27, 2003)
That’s right, George Hamilton’s layabout son, attempting to launch what we might call a spin-off pop career, if indeed our Ashley had a career to spin something off from in the first place. Here, in a song written by Robbie Williams at the very peak of his “complete knob” phase, Hamilton unwisely attempts to use women as a verb, and much worse besides. Gruesome, really: like watching and listening to a live satellite link-up from a serial killer’s lair.

4. Airheadz, “Stanley (Here I Am)” (no.36, 2001)
Because if Eminem’s “Stan” was crying out for something, it was, of course, to be turned into a pumping floorfiller sung by an Enya lookalike. *locks Airheadz in boot, drives car off bridge*

QB Finest feat. Nas and Bravehearts, “Oochie Wally” (no.30, 2001)
From the title, you know it’s going to be no good, but it’s only upon listening to the track - four minutes of hideous misogynistic braying - that you realise just how bad it is: I challenge you to get through ninety seconds of it without wanting to have a shower and remove any remaining trace of your genitalia.

2. Dorothy, “What’s That Tune? (Doo-Doo-Doo-Doo-Doo-Doo-Doo-Doo-Doo-Doo)” (no.31, 1995)
Not sure yet? Well, here’s “our Graham” with a quick reminder. “Is it answer number one: a dance version of the theme tune to Cupid-slaughtering teatime TV sinkhole Blind Date? Is it answer number two: s**t? Or is it answer number three: really, unspeakably s**t? A full seven minutes of shit, no less?” Never have the contents of a parenthesis appeared more apposite.

1. Pondlife, “Ring Ding Ding” (no.11, 2005)
As if the Crazy Frog records weren’t enough to make you want to run through the nearest shopping centre spraying bullets into everyone around, here’s the “unofficial” (i.e. completely unlicensed) cash-in rip-off, and the fact it got as high in the charts as it did is something this nation will surely have to apologise for at the European Court of Human Rights before long. (You goggle at the record-buying logic involved: “You know that Crazy Frog single? Well, have you got anything like that, only cheaper and less listenable?”) Pondlife: not so much a band name, more the target demographic.

The all-time greatest one-hit wonder will be revealed here tomorrow.

2: Animotion, “Obsession” (no.5, 1985)

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the BIGGEST SYNTHS IN THE WORLD; synths played by GIANTS, standing ON THE SHOULDERS OF GIANTS, standing on GIANT BLOCKS OF CHEESE. And lest anyone should turn their noses up at the presence or scale of said cheese, let me remind you this is, after all, a one-hit wonders list. Would you really want cheese - the most suspicious of all foodstuffs, being essentially (the already fairly suspect) milk gone wrong - hanging around in your life any longer than three minutes and 58 seconds?

A cover of a song first heard in the 1983 Lesley Ann Warren vehicle A Night in Heaven (nope, me neither), “Obsession” has become a mainstay on soundtracks of its own in recent years - those of Adventureland and Hot Tub Time Machine, to name but two - and it strikes me that if we are now going to revive the 80s sound, it should be this 80s sound, and not the weedy synths of Yazoo or the poseur synths of Duran Duran and Spandau Ballet: big and bold, caring not one iota whether it’s cool or not, where the primary colours evident in the orchestration don’t entirely knock out the darkness lurking in the lyrical shadows.

And as its title may suggest, there is surely darkness between those power chords, although - cleverly - the creepy undertones of obsession and possession (perhaps inspired by John Fowles’ novel “The Collector”, hence the butterfly references) are warded off by staging the song as a male-female duet: in this tale, the singers are as crazed as one another. (But - hey - that’s love for you.) Special mention to some typically polished production, which helps us overlook any banality in the lyrics (“My fantasy has turned to madness/And now my goodness has turned to badness” - inspired, that); further confirmation of “Obsession”’s position in the all-time pop pantheon came with a Sugababes cover - this being back in the day, when the Sugababes were still the Sugababes (and not the lo-cal alternative Splendababes) and thus capable of fostering an obsession all their very own.

Sunday, 24 April 2011

3: M/A/R/R/S, “Pump Up The Volume/Anitina (The First Time I See She Dance)” (no.1, 1987)

The 2001 of one-hit wonders, pointing us in the direction of a new way of making music; one that seemed revolutionary at the moment of release, and has grown commonplace in the years since. From the word go, they were a sampled band, mashing together members of two indie chart favourites - electronica specialists Colourbox (responsible for one of my favourite ever pieces of music, the Mexico ’86-inspired “The Official Colourbox World Cup Theme”) and moody minimalists A.R. Kane - plus a couple of then-prominent club DJs, CJ Macintosh and Dave Dorrell.

They didn’t all get on - in later years, the Kane lot would take steps to prevent Colourbox from re-using the M/A/R/R/S name, payback for what they considered the shoddy treatment of their altogether indier B-side - yet the fractious creative process would in several ways mirror the finished product. What was so radical about “Pump Up the Volume” was that neither the vocals, nor the orchestration would be laid down in a recording studio; instead every element you heard on the record would be sourced from a pre-existing recording, mostly - as it turned out - obscure soul, hip-hop and R’n’B tracks. (Anoraks attempting to identify the source of individual samples will have a field day here.)

Naturally, this was perceived as a threat to the musical orthodoxy, as much as punk had been a decade before. In September 1987, with “Pump Up the Volume” climbing the UK charts - and threatening to topple Rick Astley’s “Never Gonna Give You Up” from the top spot - Astley’s producers Stock Aitken and Waterman launched a legal action related to copyright infringement, and successfully had the “hey!” sample (extracted from their earlier hit “Roadblock”) removed from all future pressings. (The stalling tactic was less successful: M/A/R/R/S displaced Astley at number one in the first week of October.)

As a result, like a classic text over whose differing folios scholars continue to argue, “Pump Up the Volume” exists in multiple forms: the version on the video above, with its shoutout to “all you homeboys in the Bronx” is the U.S. radio edit. (The original UK release opened with Lovebug Starski’s declaration “this has gotta be the greatest record of the year” - now that’s chutzpah.) Worth remembering, with each leaden R’n’B “smash” that simply lifts wholesale one riff from a record most of us were already aware of, how dynamic sampling once was - and still could be. How wide-ranging it was, too: for “Pump Up the Volume” - a genuine journey into sound - stretches out into the furthest corners of the universe. (Hell, as number 90 on this list demonstrates, it even reached Whitley Bay.)