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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Memorable Gigs Of The 1980s (Part Two)

David Sanborn Band/Al Jarreau @ Wembley Arena, November 1984

We were sitting high up behind the stage with a great view of two of the great modern American drummers: Steve Gadd (with Sanborn) and Ricky Lawson (with Jarreau). To be honest, my parents and I left in the middle of Al’s set but Sanborn was fantastic with Marcus Miller and Hiram Bullock running amok on the huge Arena stage. The saxophonist was at his commercial peak here and probably could have headlined the show.

Marc Almond @ The Palladium, 12th October 1986

I have absolutely no memory of why I was at this gig but it was a genuine eye-opener. Almond was long past his pop fame and seemed to be acting out his own private, Berlin-inspired drama. Looking at the footage today, I’m still not sure if it’s brilliant or total sh*te.

Miles Davis @ Hammersmith Odeon, 21st April 1982

I remember someone shouting ‘Turn the guitar down!’ Poor Mike Stern wasn’t the critics’ flavour of the month and Miles was obviously exceptionally ill, but the gig was unforgettable. One of my first and very best. I saw Miles three or four times during the ’80s but this was the bomb for sheer atmosphere and occasion.

Robert Palmer @ Hammersmith Odeon, 25th September 1988

There really isn’t anyone around these days like the much-missed Robert with his gravelly voice, weirdly cosmopolitan compositions and ever-present smirk. He had a highly-drilled, sh*t-hot band with him at the Hammie Odeon too featuring Frank Blair on bass and Eddie Martinez on guitar. The gig started with a five-minute Dony Wynn drum solo which fair blew the minds of my brother and I.

Yes/No People @ Limelight, 9th September 1986

I think this gig was part of what was then known as the Soho Jazz Festival. There was a lively crowd of ‘jazz revival’ hipsters and rare-groove fans – this was my first taste of an underground scene that was quickly building momentum. DJ Baz Fe Jazz kicked off with some Blue Note post-bop (yes, people actually danced to that stuff) and then Yes/No People featured Steve Williamson on sax and the cracking Mondesir brothers (Mark and Mike) rhythm section. The band only lasted a year or so but nearly dented the charts with their ‘Mr Johnson’ single.

John McLaughlin/Mahavishnu Orchestra @ Hammersmith Odeon, 12th July 1984

The sign on the door said ‘Billy Cobham will not be appearing’ – heartbreaking to me at the time (McLaughlin apparently dumped Billy just a week before the tour). But Danny Gottlieb sat in with some style and John rattled off some outstanding licks in black shirt and black headband. It was bloody loud too. It was the first time many British fans had seen him since Mahavishnu Mark 1 days and as such there was a big hippie turnout.

Bill Withers @ Hammersmith Odeon, 18th September 1988

From memory, Bill spent most of the gig sitting at the front of the stage, talking about his life and career while Pieces Of A Dream accompanied with gentle jazz/funk. Bill wore a sweater and golfing slacks and seemed incredibly old, more Val Doonican than Curtis Mayfield.

Weather Report @ Dominion Theatre, 26th June 1984

The duels between keys man Zawinul and drummer Omar Hakim were spellbinding. This was clearly the dog’s b*ll*cks. Well, it was better than Duran Duran anyway. Omar’s huge shades, trash-can cymbal and big grin linger in the memory.

Level 42 @ Wembley Arena, 12th January 1989

Level again, but this time for all the wrong reasons. We were in the back row of the dreaded Arena, and the band were flogging their substandard Staring At The Sun album. The audience reaction to the ‘new stuff’ was distinctly subdued. After a contractually-obliged encore of ‘Chinese Way’, Mark King returned to the stage alone. ‘You ‘ad a good night?’ he bawled. The audience erupted. ‘Well, you can all go and f**k off home then’, deadpanned the thunder-thumbed one. Reply – and further encore – came there none…

Bubbling under:

Mike Stern/Bob Berg Band @ Town & Country Club, November 1989

Will Downing @ Hammersmith Odeon, 20th November 1988

Coltrane Legacy (Alice/Ravi Coltrane, Reggie Workman, Rashid Ali) @ Logan Hall, 10th July 1987

Ry Cooder @ Hammersmith Odeon, 27th May 1982

Bill Frisell @ Town & Country Club, 24th April 1989

Ornette Coleman/Prime Time @ Town & Country Club, 28th August 1988

Check out the first selection of memorable gigs here.

Were you at any of these concerts? Let me know your memories.