The BBC website had an enjoyable piece recently on some of the great singles that only ever made No 2 in the British singles charts. Listeners to Radio 2 had voted for the best ten of all time. Here are the results.
“Vienna” by Ultravox was No 1 of the No 2s. A great piece of New Romantic grandiloquence. Amusing but also rather atmospheric. The video shot in moody black and white of course. (Or at least that’s how I remember it – can’t find it on YouTube). When I was writing a piece on the New Romantics and electrop for my book on my musical journey, I was sure “Vienna” had been No 1 for ages. Anyway, I thought I’d better check. And no, it hadn’t. It was kept off the top slot by a novelty record, “Shadappa You Face” by Joe Dolce. A truly grim mock-Italian affair. The British public had spoken.
It’s always been this way of course. Those of us who remember punk in the late seventies as the defining moment of our pop lives are quickly brought down to earth the moment we study the singles charts. Take 1977, that seminal year, when punk ruled the roost, the Pistols riding high, The Clash releasing “1977”, the Jam bursting on the scene. Well, No 1 artists included: David Soul (twice), Julie Covington, Leo Sayer, Manhattan Transfer, Kenny Rodgers and… Brotherhood of Man! At least Abba were at their peak with “Knowing me, Knowing You” and “The Name of the Game”, while Donna Summer had a No 1 with “I Feel Love” and the Floaters’ “Float On” took cheesy soul to its ultimate height.
Best punk outing, meanwhile? Well, the Pistols’ “God Save The Queen” made No2 during the Silver Jubilee, amid dark allegations that it had been deliberately shunted off the top spot by the authorities (Rod Stewart was No1 with “I Don’t Want To Talk About It”). Otherwise not a lot. “White Riot” by the Clash stormed to No 35 in the charts, not helped by the fact that The Clash wouldn’t appear on “Top of the Pops”. The Stranglers’ “No More Heroes” and “Peaches” both peaked at No 8. The Jam’s magnificent debut, “In the City” soared to No 40!
That old philosophical question: the difference between perception and reality…
But back to those No 2s. Can you believe that the Beatles’ double A single, “Strawberry Fields/ Penny Lane” wasn’t number one in 1967? The previous eleven singles, starting with “From Me To You” in 1963, were all No1s. The following six were too. What kept two of the greatest Beatles tunes from the top perch? Step forward Englebert Humperdinck – the alternative Tom Jones – with “Release Me”. Well done Eng! (Bert, Engels?)
Some of those No 2s in the BBC 10 were kept off the top by other fine tunes. We love the Pogues’ “Fairytale of New York” more with each passing Christmas, but “Always on my Mind” by the Pet Shop Boys in 1987 was a great pop tune too. The Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows” succumbed to the Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby” and “Yellow Submarine” in 1966. Cheating to put TWO great songs like that on the same single! And good though “Golden Brown” by the Stranglers was in 1982, “A Town Called Malice” by The Jam, was even better.
And I have to say I’m glad “Mull of Kintyre” by Wings (along with Abba) blocked Queen’s vainglorious “We Are The Champions” in 1977. Give me Macca’s camp fire every time!
I was thinking about what other No 2s I really liked and three came to mind quickly. The brilliant “Oliver’s Army” in 1979 by one of my favourite artists, Elvis Costello, faced a rather effective brick wall of Blondie (“Heart of Glass”), the Bee Gees (“Tragedy”) and Gloria Gaynor (“I Will Survive”). The great blues rock band, Free, in 1970, released their classic “Alright Now”, but got bounced by the England football World Cup squad and “Back Home”. Fine football team – one of our best – but terrible song!
And then maybe the best Britpop song in the 1990s: “Wonderwall”, by Oasis. A true anthem. Shoved aside by TV actors Robson and Jerome and then maybe the worst ever Michael Jackson single, “The Earth Song”.
Blimey, the injustice of it all!
But then again, people bought the other records and presumably liked them too. Who am I to judge?
And to complete the loop, who was the lead singer of Ultravox by the time of “Vienna”, anyway? Midge Ure. Cool in 1981, but how about 1976 when he was in Scottish teenybop band Slik?
(Of course he then gained pop sainthood with his role in Live Aid with Bob Geldof. And apparently he turned down a chance to be in the Sex Pistols in the early days. So pretty cool overall. A man of many facets.)
Hey, maybe Joe Dolce deserves respect too. I had a look at his Wikipedia entry and he seems to be multi-talented, born in the US, but based in Australia, with accolades for his poetry and guitar playing in recent times. And I bet “Shaddapa You Face” set him up for life, so he could pursue his other interests. I say respect to the man. But the enemy of all self respecting New Romantics for ever more!
And one last thing, getting back to injustice, how could “American Pie” by Don McLean in 1972 not be a number one? A truly iconic tune. Everyone used to sing it, me included. Bye, bye, Miss American Pie, took my chevvy to the levee, but the levee was dry… aaahh, brings back the memories.
I should know why he got stuck at No2 though: as a 13 year old, I bought the single, “Son Of My Father” by Chicory Tip. Loved it. A glam pop thing. Pretty rubbish really. No 1. Kept Don off the top, until Nilsson’s “Without You” took over and stayed there for weeks. Double whammy.