There’s something impregnable about reaching the coveted top slot. At least there used to be. And yet the story told by a lifetime of number ones is patchy and erratic at best. It's one in which McFly are more significant than the Sex Pistols and Robbie Williams has had more of an impact than Bowie. However, number twos offer a slightly different secret history, perhaps one less distorted by charity records, TV tie-ins, novelties and contemporary big hitters.
This list offers my selection of 45 brilliant and epochal singles that deserved to reach the top but for some reason were cheated by a quirk of fate from fulfilling their destiny. As before, I’ve concentrated my efforts on a specific period stretching from 1971, the year I began listening to pop and watching Top Of The Pops, until the shows final broadcast on 30th July 2006. Do these evocative, often unique slices of pop history match or even surpass my All Time Favourite UK Number Ones? You decide!
01. ROLLING STONES ‘Brown Sugar’ (May 1971)
Sexist and stunningly offensive towards black women, if ‘Brown Sugar’ was written today the backlash would be immediate and damning. And yet, as nasty and controversial as it is, ‘Brown Sugar’ is one of the great rock’n’roll songs with an instantly recognisable riff and mesmerising groove. It’s also the song that introduced my eleven year old self to The Stones. And no-one does it quite like The Stones.
02. T. REX ‘Jeepster’ (November 1971)
From January 1971 until January 1973 Marc Bolan had a remarkable, two year run of four number ones and four number twos before ’20th Century Boy’ blew it by stalling at number three. ‘Jeepster’ is my current pick of the bunch.
03. ELTON JOHN ‘Rocket Man’ (June 1972)
Courtesy of a best friend’s older sister, Elton John records played a far bigger part in my adolescence than they possibly deserved to. Piggybacking onto ‘Space Oddity’s theme of space travel as lonely and workaday rather than exotic and glamorous, Bernie Taupin’s lyric tells the tale of an astronaut torn between duty and domesticity and is all the sadder for it.
04. THE OSMONDS ‘Crazy Horses’ (November 1972)
Often dismissed as an anemic version of the Jackson Five, in truth the older Osmond brothers were Led Zeppelin fans. As if to prove it, they released this extraordinarily heavy two and a half minutes of nascent eco consciousness to blow their teeny bopper image sky high, if only for a week or two.
05. DAVID BOWIE ‘Jean Genie’ (January 1973)
It has often been alleged that ‘Jean Genie’ borrowed the same Yardbirds riff as Sweet’s ‘Blockbuster’. Being considerably hipper than the Sweet, the tendency was to infer that songwriters Chinn and Chapman had ripped Bowie off. How ironic then that ‘Blockbuster’ would go on to keep ‘Jean Genie’ off the top spot.
06. GARY GLITTER ‘Hello Hello I’m Back Again’ (April 1973)
Exorcised from every new millennium glam compilation to the delight of Alvin Stardust who appeared to be the main beneficiary, there’s no question that Gary Glitter singles were mind numbingly dumb but therein lay their strange, stupid genius.
07. SWEET ‘Teenage Rampage’ (January 1974)
Their third consecutive number two following ‘Hellraiser’ and ‘Ballroom Blitz’, the Sweets bubblepunk reached its apex on the stirring 'Teenage Rampage'. As a formula it was unapologetically contrived and disposable, but to a fourteen year old boy on the cusp of young manhood it sounded like the greatest pop noise ever!
08. SPARKS ‘This Town Ain’t Big Enough For The Both Of Us’ (June 1974)
With Hitler lookalike Ron’s musical ambition, pretty boy Russell’s hysterically camp falsetto and nifty, gunshot sound effects, ‘This Town Ain’t Big Enough’ was one of the most breathtaking moments of seventies pop, anticipating everyone from the Pet Shop Boys to the Scissor Sisters and beyond.
09. CANDI STATON ‘Young Hearts Run Free’ (July 1976)
Hearing this takes me straight back to the Reading Top Rank and that incredible feeling of anticipation and indestructibility known only to sixteen year olds. At such a youthful age ‘Young Hearts Run Free’s desperate plea for feminism went straight over my head as I seized instead on the exuberant horns and feeling of hope flowing from its every groove.
10. HEATWAVE ‘Boogie Nights’ (March 1977)
Not just another bunch of disco bods in crimplene flares so much as one of the key records in the (false) dawn of seventies Britfunk. So good they named a film after it.
11. SEX PISTOLS ‘God Save The Queen’ (June 1977)
The number one that never was heralding both the zenith and the death of punk as I knew it.
12. ELVIS COSTELLO & THE ATTRACTIONS ‘Oliver’s Army’ (March 1979)
Interested only in its infectious, unforgettable, new wave chorus and dramatic piano lines, I failed to notice Elvis Costello’s too-clever-by-half connection between imperialism, conflict zones and the use of the uneducated, working class, British male as cannon fodder.
13. M ‘Pop Musik’ (May 1979)
M’s Robin Scott attended Croydon College of Art with Malcolm McLaren, graduating with the same situationist, media scamming interests. Too old for punk, he had no problem turning rebellion into money, his particular genius on ‘Pop Musik’ being to crystallise the growing death to trad rock feeling amongst the British music cognoscenti by finding the missing link between Kraftwerk, Station To Station Bowie and the new pop template.
14. ROXY MUSIC ‘Dance Away’ (May 1979)
Essentially Bryan Ferry waving a fond farewell to the pop art threat that had once made Roxy Music so extraordinary, ‘Dance Away’ starts with him lighting a cigarette and sighing before dissolving into smooth, cocktail party splendour and playing the new game of pop for all it was worth.
15. THE POLICE ‘Invisible Sun’ (October 1981)
I considered Sting to be a fairly creepy individual, more scary Midwich Cuckoo child than future pop star, and Messrs. Copeland and Summers to be no more than a couple of shameless huckster’s. But there’s no denying the-only-Police-song-I-can-stand’s fine intention of highlighting how those living through war torn times find the strength and willpower to carry on.
16. ALTERED IMAGES ‘Happy Birthday’ (October 1981)
In 1980 angsty post punkers Altered Images could be found supporting Siouxsie & The Banshees in the questionable surroundings of dumps like the Bristol Locarno and the Sheffield Top Rank. A year later they wrote ‘Happy Birthday’ specifically to get on Top Of The Pops and in the charts. They succeeded.
17. THE STRANGLERS ‘Golden Brown’ (February 1982)
A beguiling, waltz time oddity floating on a sea of harpsichord, ‘Golden Brown’ was either a subversive, punky, schoolboy prank about heroin addiction, a hymn to Hugh Cornwell’s Mediterranean girlfriend or an ode to Marmite on toast. Take your pick!
18. SOFT CELL ‘Torch’ (June 1982)
Bringing together the classic elements of world weariness, tender bitterness and the vulnerable regret of avoidable mistakes, over the ensuing thirty five years or so the oft forgotten ‘Torch’ has proved to be the pinnacle of Soft Cell’s considerable achievements. Recorded in New York it features camp follower and sometime muse Cindy Ecstasy duetting on the typically melancholic ending.
19. EDDY GRANT ‘Electric Avenue’ (February 1983)
Disillusioned with Britain’s rampant racism and class struggle, Eddy Grant relocated to Barbados in 1982 and left us this soliloquy to a real street in Brixton and the site of the previous year’s riots as a leaving present.
20. FRANKIE GOES TO HOLLYWOOD ‘Welcome To The Pleasuredome’ (April 1985)
A grand, glistening, Trevor Horn production of cinematic funk, ‘Welcome To The Pleasuredome’ is included not so much for its musical merits but for bringing some tumultuous playfulness to an otherwise barren 1985.
21. TEARS FOR FEARS ‘Everybody Wants To Rule The World’ (April 1985)
For a stretch in the mid-eighties, ‘Everybody Wants To Rule The World’ gave Tears For Fears the chance to do just that. Originally titled ‘Everybody Wants To Go To War’, it’s one of the few great protest songs that doesn’t grandly announce itself as such, a deceptively upbeat tune slyly concealing a certain Thatcher/Reagan spiritual languor that has a way of cutting through just about every barrier you can think of.
22. SIMPLY RED ‘Holding Back The Years’ (June 1986)
For all of Simply Red’s anodyne, wine bar muzak, fully qualified cunt Mick Hucknall’s lament for his childhood – written when he was a seventeen year old punk – remains a sublime tear jerker. As another infinitely more likeable and talented white soul boy once said: ‘Listen without prejudice’.
23. PET SHOP BOYS FEAT. DUSTY SPRINGFIELD ‘What Have I Done To Deserve This?’ (August 1987)
If they remembered her at all, in 1987 most folk believed Dusty Springfield to be dead until the Pet Shop Boys saved her from a decade of drug abuse on a record that contained so many solid gold earworms I wanted to play it again before it had even finished.
24. BOMB THE BASS ‘Beat Dis’ (February 1988)
Chunky beats and an even chunkier bassline, Tim Simenon’s DJ record contained over seventy samples and was recorded for just £300 with funds from his part time job as a supermarket shelf stacker. Interestingly, the sleeve featured a smiley pinched from Alan Moore’s Watchmen comic, the first ever use of the symbol in relation to dance music.
25. SALT’N’PEPA ‘Push It’ (July 1988)
At last, not only does hip hop make an appearance, but its hip hops all too rare feminine side playfully reviving the old is-it-dancing-or-is-it-shagging routine.
26. LIL LOUIS ‘French Kiss’ (August 1989)
Chicago DJ Marvin Louis had been spinning the decks for more than a decade by the time this came out so it’s safe to say he knew exactly what kind of mind blowing effect the raw sexiness of ‘French Kiss’ would have on dancefloors as far apart as New York and Newcastle.
27. DEEE-LITE ‘Groove Is In The Heart’ (September 1990)
Deee-lite took the trashy, kitsch aesthetic and turned it into pop art, an addictive mish mash of street groove, sampledelia and dollops of psychedelic strangeness that made me tap my foot in appreciation and wonder at its one off genius.
28. SL2 ‘On A Ragga Tip’ (May 1992)
What was it about hardcore rave and the number two slot? See also The Prodigy’s ‘Everybody In The Place’, Shut Up And Dance’s wonderful ‘Raving I’m Raving’ and Smart E’s ridiculous ‘Sesame’s Treet’.
29. ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT ‘People Everyday’ (November 1992)
Hip hop rarely featured near the top of the UK singles charts which makes ‘People Everyday’s appearance even more surprising. Based on Sly’s sixties hit it’s easy to hear it as Arrested Development's response to the ever rising prominence of gangsta rap, and at the time how they seemed like the only intelligent alternative. Yet somehow, like everything else they recorded, while it is undoubtedly a brilliant stream of Afrocentric consciousness, it remains a monument to how ultimately their disappointing and short career merely echoed their name
30. KYLIE ‘Confide In Me’ (September 1994)
Having successfully escaped Stock, Aitken and Waterman, Kylie returned with her greatest, strangest hit, the first fifty seconds alone all strings, slowness and Middle Eastern weirdness before diving into the unknown off the back of early eighties indie classic Jane and Barton’s 'It's a Fine Day'. Mesmerising!
31. PULP ‘Sorted For E’s & Wizz’ (October 1995)
There’s not many pop lyricists as good as Jarvis, a man who knows how to eavesdrop on life and turn everyday conversations into poetry. I particularly liked ‘Sorted For E’s & Wizz’, a phrase used by a girl in Sheffield who’d been to see the Stone Roses at Spike Island and one he used to come over all melancholic about the rave experience.
32. UNDERWORLD ‘Born Slippy.NUXX’ (July 1996)
It’s entirely fitting that the single that best encapsulated the On The Buses Britlad era wasn’t a Britpop record at all. Indeed, the only reason this phenomenal single made any impact in the first place was the remixed NUXX versions inclusion on Danny Boyles Trainspotting soundtrack, a film about the misery of heroin addiction. How ironic then that alongside ‘Design For Life’ and the excretable ‘Tubthumping’, ‘Born Slippy’ is now regarded as one of this countries principle drinking anthems.
33. THE VERVE ‘Bitter Sweet Symphony’ (June 1997)
Iconic, uplifting and defiant, forget the dispute revolving around the infamous passage of strings sampled from Andrew Oldham’s recording of ‘The Last Time’ or smug as fuck OAP’s Jagger and Richards receiving 100% of the song writing royalties on a technicality, listening to ‘Bitter Sweet Symphony’ is like a metaphorical walk down life's crooked path with two fingers raised to all and sundry.
34. NATALIE IMBRUGLIA ‘Torn’ (November 1997)
‘Torn’ was actually recorded by a number of Scandinavian and American artists before the Neighbours actress turned it into a smash. No matter though because the diminutive Aussies version remains oddly ingratiating twenty years later, the melodramatic lyrics karaoke gold and the cheesy slide guitar solo still hitting the spot.
35. STARDUST ‘Music Sounds Better With You’ (August 1998)
The best Daft Punk track that’s not actually Daft Punk, Stardust capitalised on a fascination with the past that was startlingly out of step with what was going on in electronic music. Acknowledging a genre that had endured universal disdain from rockists and clubbers alike, ‘Music Sounds Better With You’ encouraged a return to D.I.S.C.O.
36. JAY Z ‘Hard Knock Life’ (December 1998)
Twenty years on I still can’t decide whether Jay Z’s mix of Annie’s schmaltzy, Broadway musical sentimentalisation of poverty with his own mean streets reality tale is a stroke of genius or the crassest, most commercial gesture in the history of hip hop.
37. BLUR ‘Tender’ (March 1999)
Daman Albarn’s late period study in heartbreak leaves little to the imagination yet is both splendid and eerie in a way that songs seldom are anymore.
38. EMINEM ‘My Name Is’ (April 1999)
Motor mouthed, parent baiting over cartoon horror music.
39. ARTFUL DODGER ‘Re-Rewind The Crowd Say Bo Selecta’ (December 1999)
Home grown London independent number two with smashing glass effects, off key chorus and an undercurrent of sex and violence that woke up my thirteen year old son and his spotty mates to the possibilities and wonder of music.
40. OUTKAST ‘Ms. Jackson’ (March 2001)
From the male point of view, ‘Ms. Jackson’ was a surprisingly honest and responsible take on relationships and children, especially given hip hop’s reputation as a misogynistic treadmill of booty and bitches. Of course, the freaky and kind of camp Andre 3000 didn’t conform to that stereotype, except of course when he sired a kid and dumped the mother who just happened to be soul legend Erykah Badu. But Andre really was an enlightened star who ultimately would end up doing everything his lyrics promised, no doubt to the delight of the real Ms. Jackson and his now grown up son.
41. X-PRESS 2 ‘Lazy’ (April 2002)
Ex-Talking Heads frontman David Byrne must have one of the most recognisable voices known to man, his deadpan delivery capable of making the proverbial telephone directory sound like impending Armageddon. And it was that voice that transformed London DJ trio X-Press 2’s amiable deep house ditty into something we could all identify with and chuckle about. Catchy, funny and anthemic, for those of us who believed the charts to be inconsequential and irrelevant, ‘Lazy’ was a welcome reminder that there was life in the old dog yet.
42. JUSTIN TIMBERLAKE ‘Cry Me A River’ (February 2003)
You know what they say about young love? It’s all obsession and lust until someone gets cheated on. After that it’s ‘Cry Me A River’ on repeat. Cheers JT.
43. THE LIBERTINES ‘Can’t Stand Me Now’ (August 2004)
Another top Libertines song complete with call and response vocals and pummeling guitar detailing the most masochistic bromance in the history of pop. Pete and Carl are best buds again now but for a while there it definitely got a bit sticky!
44. MANIC STREET PREACHERS ‘The Love Of Richard Nixon’ (October 2004)
‘The Love Of Richard Nixon’ is not a favourite amongst Manics fans who continue to be haunted by the ghost of Richey Edwards and the spectre of ‘The Holy Bible’. But I like it’s odd, spangly electronica, the incongruous guitar solo and some of the finest words Nicky Wire has ever penned. I like it a lot.
45. GORILLAZ ‘Feel Good Inc’ (May 2005)
Amongst the dexterous conjunctions of dub/hip-hop/lo-fi indie/world music hybrid styles Damon Albarn likes to fuck around with, most of his tunes positively leak melodies. Not surprisingly ‘Feel Good Inc is no different, seamlessly switching between folksy indie strum and grimy bass rumble to smuggle De La Soul's head-bobbing hip-hop into the mainstream. They seem unnecessary now, but God bless those animated apes.