heard on the wire

You don’t have to be Prince if you want to dance

Peel Warhol

I talked in my last post about BBC Radio 2’s poll to find the most popular number two records ever. Although their selection was restricted to the popular chart and thus based on the crudest of metrics, it wasn’t without merit. The rundown of 40 tracks chosen from a shortlist of 100 would make a listenable compilation, albeit with finger poised over the skip button.

But what of the best number two records of all time, the ones chosen by the discerning listener? I am, of course, referring to the legendary (ie. relatively obscure) festive fifty, the chart that John Peel compiled every year from 1982 to 2003, the chart based on listeners’ selections of the best three records of the year.

That first annual chart gave us a number two quite literally out of left-field.

Shipbuilding’s words were written by left-leaning Labour supporter Elvis Costello, who’s described them as “the best…I’ve ever written”. The tune is by producer Clive Langer, who originally composed it for then Communist Party member Robert Wyatt.

But when Wyatt came to record the song—for an intended EP of four different version—he made it his own, as they say these days. That isn’t to disparage Costello’s version on his excellent 1982 LP, Punch the Clock, but Wyatt’s plaintive voice lends a rare npathos to the bleak and almost hopeless lament on the ironic and bitter prosperity that war can bring. The result is painfully beautiful.

It’s just a rumour that was spread around town
Somebody said that someone got filled in
For saying that people get killed in
The result of their shipbuilding.

Robert Wyatt :: Shipbuilding

Painfully beautiful might equally be applied to the Jesus and Mary Chain’s sole number two, which came from from their groundbreaking 1984 LP, Psychocandy. No track better illustrates the way the band blended the traditional pop song with a feedback-soaked mix of the Velvet Underground and Joy Division.

The Jesus and Mary Chain :: Just Like Honey

Prince had number two hits in New Zealand, Australia and the Netherlands with the first single from his eighth LP, Parade. Leeds’ dance rockers Age of Chance took it to the top of the UK indie charts. No contest.

This has nothing to do with the Art of Noise and their best forgotten collaboration with Welsh shouting man Tom Jones. That was painful; this is a kind of beauty.

Age of Chance :: Kiss

Number two twice in two years was a rare accolade, if that’s the right word, one shared by Mogwai, whom the copyright police have decided shall ne’er appear here again, and the Wedding Present, with a song about a drug-addicted, philandering war monger.

The Wedding Present :: Kennedy

Neither act would ever make number one, though the Wedding Present’s David Gedge’s Cinerama project did in 2003. And neither was the most prolific runner-up; two acts had three number two placings: the Fall, for whom consolation came in the shape of two number ones—three if you include Mark E Smith’s outing with the Inspiral Carpets—and PJ Harvey, at her raw, visceral best.

PJ Harvey :: Sheela-na-gig

And finally a song that was kept off the number one spot by the Cuban Boys’ take on the hamster dance. I’m not laughing.

Hefner :: The Hymn for the Cigarettes


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