One of the most wonderful things about music is its ability to transport us to genuinely emotional sites and states. Very often a few bars is all it takes to reduce us to bitter tears or the laughter of a memory happily remembered. Music shuttles us through time and space, depositing us in places we'd do well to forget just as readily as it does to the ones that’ll have us smiling into the ether as we draw our last sickened breath. And no songs do it quite so effectively as number one singles because that’s where our love of pop really began.
In the past I’ve always shied away from a playlist of my favourite number ones as being too obvious, too populist, but more recently I’ve changed my mind. While websites, blogs and magazines continue to run features such as The Fifty Bass Solo’s You Must Hear Before You Die! (and we’ve done our own fair share), by design those kind of playlists are perfunctory and instantly forgettable. Chart placings however, especially number ones, are immutable.
As befits my age, my 45 favourites come from a specific 35 year period stretching from 1971, the year I began listening to pop and watching Top Of The Pops - a programme inextricably linked to the British singles chart - until the shows final broadcast on 30th July 2006. As far as I’m concerned, the years before (when I was a young boy) and the years after (when I’d stopped caring) are irrelevant which makes this an incredibly personal exercise, my only hope being that in some way it remains true to the history of British pop in all its peculiar glory.
01. T. REX ‘Hot Love’ (March 1971)
If you were eleven years old and had previously only been fed on a diet of Ed ‘Stewpot’ Stewart’s Junior Choice ‘Hot Love’ was a Godsend, a swishing pop blues delivered in a cheek suckingly camp voice with nursery rhyme lyrics and a singalong chorus that went on forever.
02. SLADE ‘Coz I Luv You’ (November 1971)
I was never much of a Slade fan although ‘Coz I Luv You’ sounds a lot rougher, therefore infinitely more preferable than their regular full on glam stomps, with Noddy’s cuddly bear persona not yet fully formed and Jim Lea’s violin adding a nasty, even menacing edge which was something they would never be again.
03. CHICORY TIP ‘Son Of My Father’ (February 1972)
Based on Giorgio Moroder’s minor European hit, the one fingered, toytown electronica and mighty chorus turned ‘Son Of My Father’ into a great, great pop song, albeit in an annoyingly catchy ‘Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep’ kind of way.
04. LIEUTENANT PIGEON ‘Mouldy Old Dough’ (September 1972)
Despised by twelve year old glam kids like me, as I’ve got older, novelty pub knees-up ‘Mouldy Old Dough’ has taken on a life of its own and become strangely evocative of the sad, decaying version of seventies Britain we’re convinced we remember. Shut your eyes, take a deep breath, and you can virtually smell the Double Diamond and Player's Number Six.
05. SWEET ‘Blockbuster’ (January 1973)
Nicky Chinn and Mike Chapman had already supplied the Sweet with a handful of top twenty bubblegum hits before the turbo charged, unapologetically trashy glam of ‘Blockbuster’ became their sole number one.
06. THE RUBETTES ‘Sugar Baby Love’ (May 1974)
Impossible to forget, ‘Sugar Baby Love’ was a wonderful piece of nonsense packed with every glam trick in the book; from the soaring falsetto opening to the recurring ‘bop showaddywaddy’ back drop and the spoken word bit. Yet somehow it managed to transcend all those clichés to fill our dark, fourteen year old hearts with joy.
07. GEORGE McCRAE ‘Rock Your Baby’ (July 1974)
In 1974 disco was less a type of music and more a place to go on a Saturday night, usually a dusty church hall packed with teenagers dancing to the top forty hits of the day, as much about Elton John, ELO and Abba as The O’Jay’s, The Chi-Lites or KC & The Sunshine Band until records like ‘Rock Your Baby’ and The Hues Corporation’s ‘Rock The Boat’ took it into the mainstream as a genre in its own right.
08. STEVE HARLEY & COCKNEY REBEL ‘Make Me Smile (Come Up And See Me)’ (February 1975)
Following the skewed glam of The Human Menagerie and The Psychomodo, initially I wasn’t too sure what to think of ‘Make Me Smile’. Melodic, infectious and an obvious hit, Steve Harley wrote it as a narky riposte to his former bandmates who wanted a slice of the songwriting pie and by chance stumbled across a pop formula that was as potent as it was unorthodox.
09. 10CC ‘I’m Not In Love’ (June 1975)
Wrapped in an icy fog of synthesised voices, no record of the seventies sounded quite like ‘I’m Not In Love’. A suitably brave and extraordinary production for a song about the emotional vulnerability of men, a rare enough subject in the 21st century much less the mid-seventies, it still sends a shiver down my spine.
10. DONNA SUMMER ‘I Feel Love’ (July 1977)
Sometimes punks ended up at discos too, at least those that didn’t object to our lack of flares, moustaches and footballer perms, which is how I got to hear ‘I Feel Love’ for the first time. Futuristic and fantastic, I immediately became obsessed with its mesmeric, sequenced, undulations; a physical, sexual journey every bit as scenic and endless as Kraftwerk’s Trans-Europe Express but one that never gets dulled by repetition.
11. ALTHEA & DONNA ‘Uptown Top Ranking’ (February 1978)
Based on Trinity’s roots classic ‘Three Piece Suit’ and originally championed by Peel, it used to be a thrill when a single that had been a best kept secret for months made the charts. Then it got played to death and we got sick of it.
12. KATE BUSH ‘Wuthering Heights’ (March 1978)
As startling as punk was, Kate Bush was so out there I dismissed her as some kind of wacked out, talentless hippy. How wrong I was? Then again, wrapped in little more than a skintight leotard with an anguished expression wailing away like the Bronte sisters on acid, she was hardly your average teen popette.
13. BEE GEES ‘Night Fever’ (April 1978)
Now Saturday Night Fever is a kitsch touchstone for seventies nostalgia and club nights, but I remember it rather differently as a dark expression of what it felt like to be young, horny and broke filled with intense feelings you could neither understand or express. Arriving soon after punk, the films message was essentially the same; the desperate quest to escape the tedium of your existence and attain your own version of the beckoning towers of Manhattan by any means possible, whether it be dance, music, writing, sweeping the streets or whatever. When I hear ‘Night Fever’ or ‘Staying Alive’ I’m not thinking about the Bee Gee’s signature falsetto or John Travolta’s white suit. I’m thinking of freedom!
14. BLONDIE ‘Heart Of Glass’ (February 1979)
The new wave’s only successful attempt at disco, the jauntiness of ‘Heart Of Glass’ belies Debbie Harry’s schizoid take on lost love, her icy woman power sneering perhaps explaining why she remained more of an icon to girls than boys, apart from the obvious yet disturbing fact that she was old enough to be their mother.
15. GARY NUMAN ‘Cars’ (September 1979)
‘Are ‘Friends’ Electric?’ ushered in the eighties, but it was ‘Cars’ that turned Gary Numan into the first post punk pop star. Together with its parent album The Pleasure Principle, it also allowed us to take a peek into his delicate state of mind, every song dripping with paranoia and neuroses, each line a tale of claustrophobia and/or agoraphobia. In fact, in 1979 Gary Numan seemed afraid of pretty much everything. More troubling was that apart from his wannabe Bowie threads, he didn’t seem so very different from the rest of us lower middle class, southern suburbanites!
16. ABBA ‘The Winner Takes It All’ (August 1980)
The unimaginable cruelty needed by Bjorn Ulvaeus to write Abba’s greatest song about his own marital strife and then present it to his ex for her to perform was almost admirable. The sheer chutzpah of the man! No wonder Agnetha felt that the only course of action left open to her was to retreat into seclusion on her isolated island home.
17. ROXY MUSIC ‘Jealous Guy’ (March 1981)
Roxy Music’s comeback records were a monument to widescreen, cinematic productions. Dispensing with the edgy, artful nature of their early days, Bryan Ferry delivered one sublime single after another. Pristine and modern, ‘Jealous Guy’ was no exception and far better than one could reasonably expect from a tribute to John Lennon.
18. ADAM & THE ANTS ‘Stand And Deliver’ (May 1981)
The leather clad Adam I witnessed in 1977/78 at dives like The Vortex and The Moonlight offered no clue that he would soon be asking us all to reject the last dregs of a movement he believed had rejected him so cruelly. Sure he had the looks, but the Ants were considered a bit of a joke until a grands worth of Malcolm McLaren guff about pirates and Native American imagery, the recruitment of Marco Pirroni, two drummers and a large dose of Burundi rhythms turned him into the biggest pop star on the planet.
19. THE SPECIALS ‘Ghost Town’ (July 1981)
Early eighties, inner city Britain in a nutshell.
20. HUMAN LEAGUE ‘Don’t You Want Me’ (December 1981)
The greatest ever Christmas number one , Phil Oakey’s semi-autobiographical A Star Is Born fantasy about what the League girls might do to him seemed deliciously revealing and inevitably made working as a waitress in a cocktail bar the career of choice for a generation. Even the girls.
21. KRAFTWERK ‘The Model’ (February 1982)
Being ahead of your time usually means having to wait for the rest of the world to catch up. In Kraftwerk’s case that meant hanging around for four years and suffering a couple of false starts before ‘The Model’ became ubiquitous on the burgeoning new romantic club scene and they finally got the number one they deserved.
22. NENA ’99 Red Balloons’ (March 1984)
In 1984 the British attitude towards Germany still seemed to be stuck in the ‘don’t mention the war’ episode of Fawlty Towers. And yet when it came to catchy, euro pop tunes about nuclear destruction, Nena, her hairy armpits and ‘99 Red Balloons’ provided the perfect combination. Even though the German and English lyrics can be interpreted in slightly different ways, it continues to live on as a pop story and one of the most succinct examples of Cold War anxiety.
23. A-HA ‘The Sun Always Shines On TV’ (January 1986)
A shining bridge between the awkward genius of early eighties new pop and the teenypop heartbreak to come, the grandiose clatter of ‘The Sun Always Shines On TV’ made for a magnificent pop record, proving beyond doubt that A-Ha were nobody’s fools and had their own unique thoughts on artistic ambition. We were lucky to have them.
24. STEVE ‘SILK’ HURLEY ‘Jack Your Body’ (January 1987)
No-one realised it at the time but the future started here. While a hit like Paul Hardcastle’s ‘19’ opened our ears to a new stuttering kind of electronic pop, by taking a bassline from First Choice’s ‘Let No Man Put Asunder’ and trying to recreate the luxury of disco with a tiny £100 recording budget, Steve ‘Silk’ Hurley created something seismic and shockingly new a full eighteen months before Acid House fever.
25. PET SHOP BOYS ‘It’s A Sin’ (July 1987)
Every so often a song comes along to remind me why I got into music in the first place. In 1987 that song was ‘It’s A Sin’.
26. M/A/R/R/S ‘Pump Up The Volume’ (October 1987)
More striking than ‘Jack Your Body’ if only because it came from a bunch of defiantly independent British artists and their defiantly independent label, ‘Pump Up The Volume’ is where the reconditioning of rockist minds began in earnest, it’s nihilistic rejection of traditional song structure, instrumentation and melody causing outrage and upset amongst the miserabilist indie kids holed up in their bedrooms mourning the death of The Smiths.
27. S’ EXPRESS ‘Theme From S’ Express’ (April 1988)
The DJ strain of club music M/A/R/R/S helped birth burnt out fairly swiftly, yet Mark Moore’s introductory and biggest hit was as sublime as the opening ‘and it is a trip’ sample promised. Tearing through Rose Royce’s ‘Is It Love You’re After’ and anything else he could find in his record rack like an avant-garde pop terrorist, in effect he was prophesising the rediscovery of the seventies a good five years before it became fashionable.
28. THE TIMELORDS ‘Doctorin’ The Tardis’ (June 1988)
Fiendishly clever and fearsomely catchy, for those in the know Bill Drummond and Jimmy Caulty’s side project was as uncompromising an attack on the concept of ‘pop’ as ‘God Save The Queen’. But you had to be in on their trash as art irony, otherwise for all their references to Doctor Who, ‘Blockbuster’, the Glitter Band stomp and the use of the ‘Loadsamoney’ and ‘Exterminate’ catch phrases as a critique of Thatcherism, it was just another cynical novelty record, albeit the very best of its kind.
29. MADONNA ‘Like A Prayer’ (March 1989)
Following a couple of years out of the musical spotlight, Madonna’s first single of 1989 was viewed as her big comeback and the moment for her to grow up and cater to the more sophisticated taste of her maturing audience. And with its mix of Catholicism, carnality and civil rights and a video incorporating everything from a black Jesus to a backdrop of burning crosses, ‘Like A Prayer’ certainly did that. Sure, it may have lost her a lucrative Pepsi sponsorship deal, but in one fell swoop the resulting controversy elevated her to the rarefied realm of celebrity Godhead. And she hasn’t come down since.
30. SINEAD O’CONNOR ‘Nothing Compares 2 U’ (February 1990)
It takes a helluva lot to beat the Purple One at his own game, but at the start of the nineties Sinead O’Connor managed to do it with one of the greatest vocal performances you’re ever likely to hear, an ocean of heartfelt emotion and a black rollneck jumper. Boosted by an iconic, tear stained video, Princes sappy 1985 original didn’t stand a chance.
31. BEATS INTERNATIONAL ‘Dub Be Good To Me’ (March 1990)
Quentin ‘Norman’ Cook’s pop cut ups always seemed to me to be benign, DIY collages of harmless fun, so much so that in 1989 he reworked one of his own B Sides entitled ‘The Invasion Of The Estate Agents’ around ‘Guns Of Brixton’s skanking bassline, laid a vocal of nineteen year old Lindy Layton singing an old SOS Band tune over the top, and created an unexpected number one. Jam hot indeed!
32. ADAMSKI FEAT. SEAL ‘Killer’ (May 1990)
Remembered for Seal’s first appearance on record, Acid House DJ Adamski was the real star of ‘Killer’. Creating a sonic landscape that was simplistic yet alien and edgy in a disconnected, Numanoid way before over familiarity inevitably bred indifference, almost thirty years later ‘Killer’ sounds even more powerful and a lot less dated than its contemporaries who can be found filling out cheap CD compilations with titles like Non Stop Nineties Dance Hits or Mega Dance 90.
33. KLF ‘3am Eternal’ (February 1991)
For a brief period Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty were a couple of daft punks using pop and dance to make post-modern aural art. They were also having huge mainstream hits, the most enduring being ‘3am Eternal’ with its incredible machine gun intro and crunching breakbeats. Oh yeah, it also featured Ricardo Da Force, not the first and definitely not the last dodgy rapper to be endured in the early nineties.
34. COOLIO ‘Gangsta’s Paradise’ (October 1995)
In gangsta circles Compton’s Artis Ivey was distinctly uncoolio. 32 years old, he had been in rehab, had a bonsai hairdo and essentially turned raps thug stylings into pop music. Even the fact that he’d actually lived and then escaped the ghetto life so many pretenders exploited for fun and profit didn’t impress the white boy faithful. Then he confounded everyone by having a massive hit with ‘Gangsta’s Paradise’, a record so slow, bleak and beautiful that even Britain’s rap-phobic mainstream couldn’t stop it reaching the top.
35. THE FUGEES ‘Ready Or Not’ (September 1996)
Carried to number one on the back of ‘Killing Me Softly’, ‘Ready Or Not’ was an altogether murkier affair. Picking the bones out of The Delfonics song of the same name, it was the trippiest, most assured, chart topper since ‘Jack Your Body’.
36. NO DOUBT ‘Don’t Speak’ (February 1997)
A lilting, old skool, tear jerker, ‘Don’t Speak’ told a simple truth that break ups hurt. There was nothing unusual or special about that until my soon to be ex-wife chose it to soundtrack the bitter dissolution of our messed up marriage. Suddenly ‘Don’t Speak’ became a lot more personal and unbearable to hear. In 1997 I hated it with a passion, and as a pop song I still find it vaguely disturbing, but now it’s in a positive way as a big fuck you to those arrogant interferers too frightened to escape their own miserable, loveless existence and as a reminder of what it feels like to throw off the chains and finally be free of such a life.
37. MANIC STREET PREACHERS ‘If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next’ (September 1998)
My how folk love to knock the post Richey Edwards Manics. But what’s not to like about a song using the Spanish civil war as a metaphor for Kosovo, Rwanda or Sierra Leone, especially when compared to what else was around at the end of the 20th Century!
38. ROBBIE WILLIAMS ‘Millennium’ (September 1998)
Let’s get one thing straight. Robbie Williams is an irritating little cunt and the prominent use of John Barry’s magnificent ‘You Only Live Twice’ theme gave ‘Millennium’ a grandeur it barely deserved. Yet somehow it managed to work a treat.
39. OXIDE & NEUTRINO ‘Bound 4 Da Reload (Casualty)’ (May 2000)
Essentially proto grime, ‘Bound 4 Da Reload’ represents the moment British teenagers began to turn their backs on UK Garages smooth 2-step sound, opting instead for the harder edged MC’s and posse’s like Oxide and Neutrino’s sprawling So Solid Crew who were just starting to emerge. As such, back in the day it came as a real shock to the system, a cold, disturbing sound speeding past in a novelty blur, but now it seems strangely emblematic.
40. ALL SAINTS ‘Black Coffee’ (October 2000)
There was a subtle coolness to everything All Saints did, their songs skewed slightly leftfield without compromising their mass appeal, the hazy, dislocated verse, euphoric chorus and awkward, glitchy electronica of their fifth number one quite possibly the greatest testament to their craft.
41. SO SOLID CREW ‘21 Seconds’ (August 2001)
In the late summer of 2001 So Solid Crew gang rushed pop culture with a conscious decision to represent the stories and struggles of their lives in the South London estates they grew up in. Existing somewhere between the high watermark of UK garage and the messy, complex birth of grime, it was the first time since punk that an undeniably British street culture had been represented in the charts.
42. SUGABABES ‘Freak Like Me’ (May 2002)
The most celebrated example of the early noughties cult of the mash up saw Sheffield DJ Richard X stick an acappella mix of Adina Howard's 1995 R&B hit 'Freak Like Me' over Tubeway Army's 'Are 'Friends' Electric'. A surefire hit, an unimpressed Howard wanted no part in it, but the soon to be relaunched Sugababes grabbed the opportunity, re-recorded the vocals and took it to number one. Within a few months the mash up craze had peaked, yet 'Freak Like Me' had already served its purpose and launched a long overdue reappraisal of Gary Numan into the bargain.
43. BRITNEY SPEARS ‘Toxic’ (March 2004)
Song craftsmanship in its most perfect form encapsulating everything I love and hate about pop in a brisk three minutes twenty seconds.
44. ARCTIC MONKEYS ‘When The Sun Goes Down’ (January 2006)
Surely it’s time to forget about the ubiquitous ‘I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor’ and concentrate instead on the Arctic Monkeys last number one. Inspired by the ladies of the night doing the deed near their Neepsend studio, it’s recently been voted Alex Turner & Co’s best ever single by their most faithful fans. Who am I to argue?
45. LILY ALLEN ‘Smile’ (July 2006)
The noughties were crying out for a brilliant new pop star when 21 year old Lily Allen arrived with ‘Smile’, a summery anthem laced with a refreshing rudeness and a massive dose of self-worth. Acknowledging the dull slog of heartbreak and how to get through it, hers was the untutored voice of the real (albeit privileged) girl next door. ‘Smile’ shone because we've all been there. The best pop songs often have.