May 23, 2014
There was a time, when the CD single was pre-eminent, that any Tom, Dick, Melanie or Christina only had to cough into a microphone and the resultant recording would go straight into the charts at number one.
The result of initially clever then formulaic manipulation of radio airplay and release dates stripped the number one position of all the allure it had held when I was a kid. When Top of the Pops ruled, records didn’t go straight in at the top of the charts; the number one position was hard earned after weeks of steady sales accumulation. Number one meant something, even if the records that reached that peak were usually of questionable merit.
So imagine my surprise one Tuesday morning in March 1980. As I was walking to school with my portable ‘trannie’ radio pressed to my ear, when then-unimpeachable Hairy Cornflake revealed that not only had a single gone straight into the charts at number one, the first for more than five years, but that the single in question was and is one of the best of all time.
You choose your leaders and place your trust
As their lies wash you down and their promises rust
You’ll see kidney machines replaced by rockets and guns
The Jam :: Going Underground
That Going Underground ever got to be number one was, if legend is to be believed, a mistake. The story is that an error at band’s record label’s pressing plant in France led to Going Underground beng erroneously labelled as the a-side, when it was meant to have been the single’s b-side. Ultimately both songs on the record received equal billing on a double A-side release, but it was the original flipside that received all the airplay—and deservedly so.
Which isn’t to say that the original a-side was a bad record.
The Jam :: Dreams of Children
Going Underground and Dreams of Children’s chart-topping debut was not a one-off. The band repeated the feat with Town Called Malice and Beat Surrender, the latter their swan song as Paul Weller decided to up sticks and form the hugely inferior Style Council. The thought of records even remotely as good topping the charts these days brings to mind hen’s teeth, flying pigs and a caring Tory government.
Likewise the thought of hit single from Stereolab, whose Pop Quiz has the rare distinction of being the first song ever posted on this blog. The anglo-french collective never had a top 40 hit in the UK, which is probably to their credit. This single was released on my thirtieth birthday and by all rights should have been an international smash. Sit back and relax.
Stereolab :: Metronomic Underground ⬇
Stereolab had a 20-year recording career. The riot grrrl-influenced Stereowoolf from Marburg in Germany managed just one single, which found its way onto a contemporary compilation of similarly influenced and similarly obscure* groups.
When I was a baby feminist
Whisky was my only interest
Stereowoolf :: When I Was a Baby Feminist ⬇ [free] This is What Feminism Sounds Like compilation
While that compilation samples the European riot grrrl scene, the movement has its origins in Washington DC, born of a frustration with the male-oriented music business and with an explicitly feminist agenda. Bikini Kill were among the pioneers and the phrase ‘pull no punches’ has never been more apt.
And then he said, ‘Why won’t you fuck me?’
And then he said, ‘Do me do me do me.’
And then he said, ‘I’ll be your best friend.’
And then I said, ‘Why do I cry every time that I cum?’
Bikini Kill :: Star-bellied Boy
I don’t generally post crappy gig recordings, but in this case it definitely adds something. It’s an angry, charged polemic, which is what Paul Weller’s songs were at their very best.
But by the time the Jam released Beat Surrender, Weller’s songwriting was on the wane and the only discernible difference between this and the largely insipid Style Council is in the personnel. Surrender indeed.
The Jam :: Beat Surrender
*Pussy Riot have, of course, become famous subsequently. Their contribution was presciently titled Putin Has Pissed Himself.
Related posts: Pop Quiz.