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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84 Great Singles Of The 1980s

Even the most ’80s-phobic pop fan would have to concede that it was a great decade for singles.

The first 7″ I asked for was either Nick Lowe’s ‘I Love The Sound Of Breaking Glass’, Elvis Costello’s ‘Less Than Zero’ or 10CC’s ‘Dreadlock Holiday’, all from the late ’70s, but the first single I distinctly remember buying was Scritti Politti’s ‘The Word Girl’.

But many others have stayed in the head and heart. Here are a bunch of them in no particular order (apart from the #1), but I’m barely scratching the surface.

The rules: one artist per slot, and a simple ‘quality’ criterion applies: when any of these songs comes on the radio or onto a playlist, they demand to be listened to. They stand alone, retaining a magic ‘buzz’, wow-factor, presence, mood (and, pop pickers, there’s nothing from 1986…). Nothing grates, and nothing – or at least not much – could be improved upon…

84: UB40: ‘Food For Thought’ (1980)

83. Special AKA: ‘Free Nelson Mandela’ (1984)

82. Kid Creole And The Coconuts: ‘Annie I’m Not Your Daddy’ (1982)

81: The Clash: ‘Rock The Casbah’ (1982)

80. The Commodores: Night Shift (1985)

79. Janet Jackson: What Have You Done For Me Lately? (1986)

78. Lionel Richie: All Night Long (1983)

77. Cliff Richard: Carrie (1980)

76. James Brown: Living In America (1985)

75. Tom Tom Club: Wordy Rappinghood (1981)

74. Rolling Stones: ‘Undercover Of The Night’ (1983)

73. David Bowie: ‘Ashes To Ashes’ (1980)

72. Dire Straits: ‘Private Investigations’ (1982)

71. Afrika Bambaataa & The SoulSonic Force: ‘Planet Rock’ (1982)

70. Belinda Carlisle: ‘I Get Weak’ (1988)

Rick Astley’s ‘Never Gonna Give You Up’ kept it off the US number one spot in early ’88. Almost-perfect pop/rock from the pen of Dianne Warren.

69. The Jam: ‘Town Called Malice’ (1982)

68. Michael Jackson: ‘Billie Jean’ (1982)

Always the loudest song on any playlist.

67. Robert Wyatt: ‘Shipbuilding’ (1982)

66. The Flying Lizards: ‘Sex Machine’ (1984)

65. Joy Division: ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ (1980)

64. Carly Simon: ‘Why’ (1982)

63. Bros: ‘I Owe You Nothing’ (1988)

62. Dollar: ‘Videotheque’ (1982)

61. Yazoo: ‘Don’t Go’ (1982)

Difficult now to disassociate it from Alan Partridge’s early morning show, but still a brilliant slice of Basildon techno-funk.

60. Bronski Beat: ‘Smalltown Boy’ (1984)

Touching meditation on the travails of youth. Even an appallingly-played synth in the intro cannot wither it.

59. Phil Collins: ‘In The Air Tonight’ (1981)

The first showing for that ’80s staple, the Roland CR-78 rhythm box, on a single that legendary Atlantic boss Ahmet Ertegun adored…

58. Fine Young Cannibals: ‘Johnny Come Home’ (1985)

57. Robert Palmer: ‘Addicted To Love’ (1985)

No apologies for including this US number one. Imagine waking up with this buzzing around your head. Palmer apparently bumped into Chaka Khan on a New York street during the vocal sessions and asked her to harmonize the lead line – a great pairing (but was she removed from some versions? Doesn’t really sound like her… Ed.).

56. Alexander O’Neal ft. Cherelle: ‘Never Knew Love Like This’ (1987)

Producers/songwriters Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis did a damn good job of creating a Marvin/Tammi or Marvin/Diana for the ’80s. Gorgeous harmonies and vocals.

55. Salt-N-Pepa: ‘Push It’ (1988)

The ‘Smoke On The Water’ of ’80s rap. But, according to the ladies, it’s not about sex – it’s about ‘pushing it’ on the dancefloor.

54. Talking Heads: ‘Once In A Lifetime’ (1981)

53. Don Henley: ‘Boys Of Summer’ (1984)

52. Yes: ‘Owner Of A Lonely Heart’ (1983)

51. Billy Joel: ‘Uptown Girl’ (1983)

Billy’s tribute to The Four Seasons works a treat, with a slammin’ rhythm section and melodic curveballs to make even Macca jealous.

50. Musical Youth: ‘Pass The Dutchie’ (1982)

The joyful sound of late summer 1982 and the first song by a black artist to be played on MTV.

49. Junior: ‘Mama Used To Say’ (1982)

48. Genesis: ‘Mama’ (1982)

The first ‘event’ single in their career. Epic/menacing.

47. Donna Summer: ‘Love Is In Control (Finger On The Trigger)’ (1982)

Quincy assembles his dream team (Ndugu, Swedien, Hey, Temperton, Phillinganes) to produce an underrated cracker.

46. The Police: ‘Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic’ (1981)

Sting wrote the band’s fourth UK number one in 1976. Apparently Summers and Copeland hated Jean Roussel’s keyboard playing on this – but they were wrong.

45. Japan: ‘I Second That Emotion’ (1981)

Most original cover version of the ’80s?

44. Bananarama: ‘Robert De Niro’s Waiting’ (1983)

Apparently about sexual abuse…

43. The Bangles: ‘Eternal Flame’ (1989)

42. Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five: ‘The Message’ (1982)

41. Blondie: ‘Atomic’ (1980)

Minor/major splendour. Debbie’s voice always sends a shiver down the spine and there’s that Roland CR-78 again.

40. The Specials: ‘Ghost Town’ (1981)

39. Frankie Goes To Hollywood: ‘Two Tribes’ (1984)

No expense was spared for the all-important follow-up to ‘Relax’ – according to arranger Anne Dudley, a 60-piece orchestra featured on the intro.

38. Ultravox: ‘Vienna’ (1981)

Kept off the UK top spot by Joe Dolce’s Music Theatre’s brilliant ‘Shaddap You Face’ (which nearly made this list…).

37. OMD: ‘Souvenir’ (1981)

More like a dream than a pop song.

36. Adam And The Ants: ‘Ant Rap’ (1981)

35. Bucks Fizz: ‘Land Of Make Believe’ (1982)

34. Madonna: ‘Crazy For You’ (1985)

Featuring Rob Mounsey’s sumptuous arrangement and a winning vocal from La Ciccone.

33. The Associates: ‘Party Fears Two’ (1982)

32. Thompson Twins: ‘Hold Me Now’ (1984)

31. Young MC: ‘Know How’ (1989)

By way of tribute to Cooking Vinyl founder Matt Dike who died recently.

30. S’Express: ‘Theme From S’Express’ (1988)

29. Nik Kershaw: Wouldn’t It Be Good (1984)

28. The Passions: ‘I’m In Love With A German Film Star’ (1981)

A quintessential ’80s one-hit wonder, still beguiling after all these years, with a classic guitar performance from Clive Temperley.

27. Wham!: ‘Freedom’ (1984)

26. ZZ Top: ‘Sharp Dressed Man’ (1983)

25. George Michael: ‘Careless Whisper’ (1984)

24. Art Of Noise: ‘Close (To The Edit)’ (1984)

Allegedly built on an unused Alan White drum track recorded during Yes’s 90125 sessions.

23. Blancmange: ‘Living On The Ceiling’ (1982)

22. Paul Hardcastle: ’19’ (1985)

21. Soft Cell: ‘Tainted Love’ (1981)

20. Rick Astley: ‘Whenever You Need Somebody’ (1987)

Wacky song construction; try playing along on guitar. So many key changes. Arguably Stock/Aitken/Waterman’s best and vastly superior to ‘Never Gonna Give You Up’.

19. Hall And Oates: ‘I Can’t Go For That (No Can Do)’ (1982)

18. Freeez: ‘Southern Freeez’ (1981)

17. Kim Carnes: ‘Bette Davis Eyes’ (1981)

A classic lyric, and musically rich too.

16. MARRS: ‘Pump Up The Volume’ (1989)

15. Eric B & Rakim: ‘I Know You Got Soul’ (1988)

14. Human League: ‘Don’t You Want Me’ (1982)

13. Christopher Cross: ‘Arthur’s Theme (Best That You Can Do)’ (1981)

Hard to resist the gorgeous Bacharach-penned melody and superb drum performance from Jeff Porcaro.

12. Will Powers: ‘Kissing With Confidence’ (1983)

11. The Jones Girls: ‘Nights Over Egypt’ (1981)

10. Roxy Music: ‘Same Old Scene’ (1980)

9. ABC: ‘Poison Arrow’ (1982)

8. Joe Jackson: ‘Stepping Out’ (1982)

7. Neneh Cherry: ‘Buffalo Stance’ (1989)

You may mock…but slap on this Tim Simenon-produced corker and watch the dancefloor fill up…

6. Prince: ‘Sign ‘O’ The Times’ (1987)

5. Simple Minds: ‘Belfast Child’ (1989)

Steve Lipson and Trevor Horn cooked up this epic UK No.1, adapted from the traditional Irish song ‘She Moved Through The Fair’. Here’s an interesting live version I’d never seen before.

4. Van Halen: ‘Jump’ (1984)

3. Madness: ‘Baggy Trousers’ (1980)

It is London school life in 1980 – simple as.

2. Scritti Politti: ‘Absolute’ (1985)

And the single I would save if my flat was on fire:

1. Grace Jones: ‘Slave To The Rhythm’ (1985)

You can listen to the whole list on Spotify:

https://open.spotify.com/embed/user/sebage/playlist/0gsb6Zkav8rFWWAQ03HFDx