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.