Monday, 28 February 2011

46: The Timelords, “Doctorin’ the Tardis” (no.1, 1988)

Post-JAMS, pre-KLF, this Drummond/Cauty offshoot wrote the book on one-hit wonders, and the book was The Manual, Drummond’s nifty pocketsize guide to having a number one record. (Synopsis: lift your favourite riffs and beats from pop records of the time, then assemble your various elements with enough wit and intelligence to allow the consumer to feel in on the joke. Most modern chart hits adhere to the first rule, but crucially not the second.) What makes “Doctorin’ the Tardis” truly unique as novelty records go is that it follows to a logical conclusion an idea nobody else had ever had, or was ever likely to have: set the Doctor Who theme to glam rock beats lifted from The Sweet (“Blockbuster”) and the Glitter Band (“Rock and Roll (Part Two)”). (Of course!, you exclaim, upon hearing the final track: why had no-one thought of doing this before?)

The title was a play on Coldcut’s then-prominent single “Doctorin’ the House” (itself a play on words, thus making the Time lords a doubly postmodern phenomenon); the shamelessly commercial nature of the entire enterprise reflected in the brief sample from Harry Enfield’s “Loadsamoney” - truly, nothing was beyond this single’s reach. Yet “Doctorin’ the Tardis” - not just a great one-hit wonder, but one of the most brilliant, nonsensical chart-toppers of all time - remains every bit as much a conceptual art project as anything the later K Foundation would embark upon: pop with both big ideas (to get to number one in the charts) and no real ideas (what the fuck does Doctor Who have to do with glam rock, and vice versa?) whatsoever. Unremarked upon in analysis of the single’s success: the fact the track was released in 1988, at a time when no-one really gave a shit about Sylvester McCoy; the Timelords could, I’d venture, re-issue “Doctorin’ the Tardis” today - at a time when everyone’s mad for sci-fi - and they’d find themselves with another million quid to burn.

Sunday, 27 February 2011

47: Thunderclap Newman, “Something in the Air” (no.1, 1969)

As orchestrated by Pete Townshend (who played bass guitar on the track, under the pseudonym “Bijou Drains”) and former Who roadie John Keen (who provided lyrics and vocals), another of those late 60s British pop songs to feel more sun-kissed than especially incendiary. (The title could equally refer to the spirit of revolution, or the plumes of reefer smoke emerging from the back of that VW camper van parked up the street.) Like its American contemporary “San Francisco”, it too seems to intuit what a glorious shambles the whole counterculture movement was, both in that insistent refrain “We have got to get it together” and in Dixieland pianist Andy “Thunderclap” Newman’s gleefully atonal piano break, which arrives out of nowhere to make “Something In The Air” what it is: an enduring slacker anthem, absolutely the work of - as per the video - a group of men who can’t even distribute balloons efficiently.

Saturday, 26 February 2011

48: The Blessing, “Highway 5 [remix]” (no.30, 1992)

A short-lived British band whose only UK hit single needed remixing before it dipped inside the Top 40. Having surely heard it upon its first release, I’d forgotten almost entirely about “Highway 5” in the intervening years, but taking another spin of it, its deployment of a transportation mishap as metaphor for a relationship grinding slowly to a halt sounded newly urgent and thrilling. It’s all in the play on “break down/breakdown”.

Friday, 25 February 2011

49: Rocket from the Crypt, “On a Rope” (no.12, 1996)

Among the many rules of pop I came to understand in undertaking this survey: every song - even a straightforward, head-banging thrashalong as determined to bludgeon the listener into submission as this one - can be improved by a factor of ten with the addition of a horn section. (Also: there will be a place in my heart for any rock band that make a raffle an integral part of their live act.)

Thursday, 24 February 2011

50: The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, “I’m the Urban Spaceman” (no.5, 1968)

The first of Neil Innes’ two one-hit wonders (followed a decade later by The Rutles’ “I Must Be In Love”), co-produced by Paul McCartney; and it’s reassuring to think that, with the streets of Prague and Paris on fire and America drifting into wistful or wig-out psychedelia, Britain was holding the fort with gentle, approachable eccentricity such as this. The self-negating twist of the final line arrived thirty years before The Sixth Sense, you’ll note.

Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Top 10 One-Hit Wonders That Are Better Than You Think

By way of a mid-list time out, here are some singular singles that missed out on the Top 100 - but are substantially better than their reputation might suggest:

10. Mad Donna, “The Wheels on the Bus” (no.17, 2002)

The best thing Madonna has released since “Deeper and Deeper”. If it really is her.

9. Morris Minor and the Majors, “Stutter Rap” (no.4, 1987)

The first record I ever owned. Which probably explains a lot. (Wikipedia assures me “A TV series, Morris Minor’s Marvellous Motors, followed from this. In it the fictional bandleader attempted to maintain his pop career while running a garage. It ran for one series in 1989.” That last sentence I can believe, but I’d be grateful if anyone can provide me with evidence of the rest.)

8. Jimmy Ray, “Are You Jimmy Ray?” (no.13, 1997)

Or, as most people ask these days, “Erm, who’s Jimmy Ray?” Ray was one of Simon Fuller’s first creations before the latter hit upon the world-beating Spice Girl formula, and what a strange creature this was: a bequiffed toreador seemingly modelled on equal parts Elvis, Tommy Steele and Nick Kamen from the old Levi’s jeans commercial - just what the pop kids of 1997 were hungering for, right? Apparently not: but kudos to Fuller for manufacturing the only teenybopper hit to namecheck Link Wray - a twist that would only be rivalled these days if JLS suddenly started paying lyrical encomium to Holland-Dozier-Holland.

7. Big Daddy, “Dancing in the Dark” (no.21, 1985)

A Showaddywaddy-style cover of what was, at that time, The Boss’s biggest UK hit simply has no right to work. This does.

6. Aly & AJ, “Potential Breakup Song” (no.22, 2007)

“Blonde, auto-tuned, Disney-approved sisters with a Christian rock background” could probably only sound less promising with the suffix “featuring Sean Paul”, but Aly & AJ’s sole UK hit marries a winning candy-pop melody to a surprisingly flinty conceptual core: the idea of writing an upbeat song about splitting up (or - per the title - threatening to split up) with an errant lover. Aly was pretty good in the movie Bandslam, AJ appeared in the recent film adaptation of The Lovely Bones; the sisters recently renamed themselves 78violet, I gather, and have betrayed no further signs of troubling the chart compilers.

5. Little Trees, “Help! I’m a Fish” (no.11, 2001)

A song of childish simplicity (the theme, indeed, to a decidedly moderate Scandinavian animation) which nonetheless speaks - in true Scandinavian fashion - to a profound existential disquiet: what it is to feel like a little yellow fish in the deep blue sea. The promotional video also helpfully demonstrated the dangers of drinking strange concoctions in overlit Danish nightclubs.

4. Lucas, “Lucas with the Lid Off” (no.37, 1994)

Natural British suspicion of European rappers/hip-hop artists (perhaps sparked by this motley pair) presumably explains the low chart placing, but - merci à Michel Gondry - Lucas’s only chart hit provided us with one of the most imaginative music videos of all time.

3. Lee Marvin, “Wand’rin’ Star” (no.1, 1970)

I know it’s a minority opinion, but I won’t hear a word against Paint Your Wagon, and the second one-hit thespian wonder it resulted in is obviously preferable to Clint’s “I Talk To the Trees”. It’s a better performed song, for a start: where Clint sounds as though he’d be more comfortable shooting at the trees, Marvin’s vocal catches perfectly the weariness of a man whose ingrained distrust of other people has left him obliged to keep on moving on. (And if that man can’t sing, well, I’m saying that’s all part of the performance; I doubt many itinerant trappers had vocal coaches back in the day.)

2. Lindsay Lohan, “Over” (no.27, 2005)

Oh LiLo, can’t we go back to 2005 and start over again?

1. Paris Hilton, “Stars Are Blind” (no.5, 2006)

Yes, it is just “Kingston Town” by UB40 repackaged with a fashion-shoot video (I can’t see Ali Campbell would have looked this good lounging around in a leopardprint bikini), but had anybody else released “Stars Are Blind”, it would by now have been recognised as the sweetly lilting slice of summer pop it is, rather than summarily dismissed (as it was) as yet more dilettantism from a woman who doesn’t need any more of our money. Besides, I think we’d all rather hear Paris singing than have to watch her acting.

The Top 100 countdown will resume this Thursday.

51: Mason vs. Princess Superstar, “Exceeder” (no.3, 2007)

Here’s a supreme example of how a chart hit can be entirely engineered. Take yourself one vinyl-only instrumental first issued in 2006 by a pair of Dutch DJs; extract the attitudinous vocal from a retro rap record put out a year beforehand by knowing American MC Superstar, a sort of Lady GaGa v.1.0; mix thoroughly; add a promo video from the director of Joe Absolom vehicle Long Time Dead that offers eye candy for all; heat or cool as appropriate in the nation’s nightclubs; and - voila - you have yourself a UK Top Five single. (Never show your working.)

What I love about “Exceeder” is its absolute flexibility - the kind that almost justifies the gratuitous imagery of the video. It’s a three-minute pop song that exists in several states (and numerous positions) at once: among the alternative mash-ups doing the rounds, there’s “Fergalicious Exceeder” (with a Fergie vocal, inevitably) and the marginally preferable “Hollaback Exceeder” (with Gwen Stefani); Mason even made a brass band version available, which - once you think about it, and listen to the song again - makes perfect sense. Still, I’d venture “Exceeder” is brassy (and horny) enough for the time being: “You see what I can do on this microphone/So just guess what I’ll do to you when I get you home,” trills the Princess, and we’re left wondering - what, plug me into the mains?