The 13 Most Unlikely Number Ones Of The 1980s

Number ones: they were the G-spot of all ’80s pop action. Anyone brought up on Bowie or Bolan’s ‘Top Of The Pops’ shenanigans could die and go to heaven if they achieved a chart-topper (except for The Human League’s Phil Oakey, who reportedly smashed his phone after being told ‘Don’t You Want Me’ was #1 in America…).

And we can probably all still remember the wow factor of singles going ‘straight in at #1’ in the 1980s (pop quiz: how many can you name? Only The Jam’s ‘Town Called Malice’  and Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s ‘Two Tribes’ spring to mind…).

But there were some damn weird UK number ones during the decade, in all kinds of styles. For every Madonna (a record-breaking six solo chart-toppers, though George Michael had a ‘hand’ in eight), there was a Goombay Dance Band. For every ‘Two Tribes’ (most weeks at #1 in the 1980s: nine), there was an ‘It’s My Party’.

Here are some of the strangest, in chronological order:

13. Kenny Rogers: ‘Coward Of The County’ (12th February 1980)

There was definitely a country ‘thing’ going on in the UK at the turn of the decade, especially in Scotland. But surely no-one could have predicted the success of this slow chugger, beautifully sung though it is.

12. Don McClean: ‘Crying’ (17th June 1980)

After Roy Orbison but before k.d. lang, there was Don’s sepulchral take on this evergreen tearjerker…

 

11. Joe Dolce Music Theatre: ‘Shaddap You Face’ (17th February 1981)

We’ve discussed this masterpiece a few times before on movingtheriver.com…

 

10. Smokey Robinson: ‘Being With You’ (8th June 1981)

Who would have predicted Smokey would hit so big with this charming but not exactly earth-shattering mid-tempo ballad? But hey, let’s celebrate it: this was his first – and to-date only – solo UK #1.

 

9. Dave Stewart/Barbara Gaskin: ‘It’s My Party’ (13th October 1981)

This was the first thing keyboard wiz Stewart recorded after leaving Bill Bruford’s techno-fusion band and it sounds like it. Certainly one of the weirdest covers of the decade, emphasised by the drummer’s (Bruford?) insane opening fill at 1:02.

8. Goombay Dance Band: ‘Seven Tears’ (23rd March 1982)

No words (apart from those…and those…).

7. Jim Diamond: ‘I Should Have Known Better’ (25th November 1984)

The Glasgow-born singer made it to #1 for one week with this peculiar ballad, replaced fairly swiftly by Frankie’s ‘The Power Of Love’. He sportingly requested that punters stopped buying his single and buy Band Aid’s ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’ instead, which swiftly became 1984’s Christmas #1.

 

6. Phyllis Nelson: ‘Move Closer’ (28th April 1985)

UK singles-buyers have always had a thing for soft soul ballads, but this still seems like a particularly peculiar smash hit. Having said that, if it had been revealed as a cover of an early Prince track, no one would have been that surprised.

 

5. Jackie Wilson: ‘Reet Petite’ (21st December 1986)

There’s no question about the quality of this life-affirming ditty, but the R’n’B/rock’n’roll revival of 1986/1987 was strange and unexpected.

 

4. Fairground Attraction: ‘Perfect’ (4th May 1988)

Imagine the pitch: it’s in a swing/jazz style, it’s going to be recorded live in one take, there’ll be no keyboards on it and the drummer will play brushes throughout. And don’t forget the brilliant, none-more-Scottish video.

3. Enya: ‘Orinoco Flow’ (23rd October 1988)

Enormo-selling – but still completely bonkers – single by the singer/songwriter who had previously been a member of Celtic band Clannad. It was the lead-off single from her second solo album Watermark.

 

2. Marc Almond/Gene Pitney: ‘Something’s Gotten Hold Of My Heart’ (22nd January 1989)

It’s the sheer audacity of this duet which beggars belief. On paper, it looks like a crackpot idea – two of the ‘edgiest’ male vocalists on the planet letting it all hang out, metaphorically speaking of course… But it was #1 for four weeks. (FOUR weeks? Check that… Ed.)

1.  Simple Minds: ‘Belfast Child’ (19th February 1989)

A theme of the tracks on this list seems to be that they’re almost all slow-burners – they would barely survive the Spotify ‘grab-’em-in-the-first-five-seconds’ rule. But this nearly-seven-minute epic still delivers, 30 years on.

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Moonlighting Strangers: Cybill Shepherd, Bruce Willis & Al Jarreau

Bruce Willis as David Addison, Cybill Shepherd as Maddie Hayes in ‘Moonlighting’

What music delivers for you a headrush of nostalgia, fills your heart with a warm glow, makes you feel everything’s for the best in this best of all possible worlds and we’re not all going to hell in a handbasket?

For me, it’s the short reprise of the ‘Moonlighting’ theme that used to play over the end credits, featuring Toots Thielemans’ (citation needed… Ed.) harmonica swooping gorgeously over swooning strings.

It shouldn’t be any surprise that Lee Holdridge’s title song (with lyrics added later by Al Jarreau) was reminiscent of an old standard in the Porter/ Gershwin mould. After all, the TV show, which ran in the States and on the BBC from 1985 to 1989, most assuredly harked back to the romantic comedies and private-eye noirs of the ’30s and ’40s.

Co-star Cybill Shepherd, upon reading the script for the pilot episode, apparently called it a ‘Hawksian comedy’ (as in ‘Bringing Up Baby’/’His Girl Friday’ director/writer Howard Hawks), an influence of which creator/co-writer Glenn Gordon Caron was fairly unaware. He had been focusing his energies instead on lampooning the in-vogue detective shows of the early ’80s, one of which (‘Remington Steele’) he’d helped usher into existence.

‘Moonlighting’ made a star out of Bruce Willis and reignited Cybill Shepherd’s career, though she was apparently an exceptionally reluctant contributor and not a huge fan of her male co-star.

For the part of David Addison, Willis apparently had to audition not once but 11 times, and even then almost lost the role until a lone female NBC executive said (in front of a cadre of other male execs): ‘He looks like a dangerous f*ck’!

I was hooked on ‘Moonlighting’ in the mid-’80s, helped no doubt by a teenage crush on Shepherd. I watched two eps again recently – the pilot, which seemed overlong and clunky, and the absolutely superb ‘A Womb With A View’, the big-budget Season 5 curtain-raiser first transmitted in December 1988.

Gleefully jumping the shark, it has everything – an exuberant, self-referential song-and-dance number (‘A chance for critics to scoff and sneer’!), a chubby Willis in a diaper playing Shepherd’s unborn child, and some startling, creative visuals.

It also brought home how the show always assumed the audience was smart, rather than most modern TV which assumes it’s dumb. And the production values were super high, even though the pressure was on – they had to make 22 x 50-minute episodes per season! That works out at around ten days per shoot.

But back to the music. ‘Moonlighting strangers/Who just met on the way’. What a lovely line. I’m partial to the original version of the theme song with its brilliant rhythm guitars and JR Robinson drums, but not so keen on Al’s re-recording with producer Nile Rodgers which – rather incredibly – made the UK top 10. And Willis of course enjoyed a brief solo music career (and made a weird HBO mockumentary) off the back of his David Addison persona, tapping into a kind of Billy/Brucie, New Jersey ‘everyman’ vibe.

Frank Gambale Live! 30 Years On

I’ll never forget it. Circa 1990, I was on holiday with my parents in Kent, near the Cliffs of Dover. A summer storm was chucking it down. Holed up inside, I flicked through some French music stations on my longwave radio.

Suddenly I heard this absolutely ridiculous guitar playing – deafeningly loud, hysterical, but totally precise, with great phrasing and notes that spluttered out in absurdly wide intervals. The tone was heavily distorted but the feel was closer to jazz/rock than metal. And the rhythm section didn’t sound too shabby either.

By this time, I had heard Allan Holdsworth, Paul Gilbert, Yngwie Malmsteen, John McLaughlin, some pretty outrageous guitarists, but this was different. Who the hell was it? I strained my ears and just about heard the French DJ utter the words ‘Frank Gambale’.

Yes, it was the Italian-Australian wunderkind, the man who introduced so-called ‘sweep picking’ to a wider audience than before. And the album was revealed to be Live!, released 30 years ago this week and recorded at LA’s jazz/rock haven The Baked Potato on 21st August 1988.

What was really weird was that I had heard Gambale with the Chick Corea Elektric band before this, and even seen them live a few times, but he seemed pretty anonymous in that band. Not here. To this day, ‘Credit Reference Blues’, ‘Fe Fi Fo Funk’, ‘Touch Of Brasil’ and ‘The Natives Are Restless’ sound like guitar landmarks.

But he was way more than a chops phenomenon – he’s an excellent composer too, clearly influenced by Chick Corea and Larry Carlton but with some moves all of his own. The album also introduced me to the fantastic Joey Heredia on drums, a completely original player who can do fiery jazz/rock, spicy Latin and Police-style rock, sometimes all in the space of one tune. And the excellent keyboard player Kei Akagi was moonlighting with Miles Davis while playing some sh*t-hot stuff on this album.

Frank Gambale Live! was a key artefact in the golden age of shred guitar, and it gained him some crossover success with metal fans and lots of coverage in guitar magazines. Sadly his solo career refused to fire after this release, with only moments of 1990’s Thunder From Down Under subsequently holding much interest for me, but this was a sporadically brilliant live jazz/rock album – and one of the best. (It has to be said, there’s not much competition – Larry Carlton’s Last Nite, Weather Report’s 8:30, Jeff Beck With The Jan Hammer Group Live!, Mahavishnu’s Between Nothingness And Eternity, and…er…)