Hits 5 Revisited: Side Three

And now - you have been warned - we arrive at that most dreaded side of eighties chart hit compilation double albums... the 'Ballads' Side. Can the pan-Kamen leylines running through 1986 make Side Three of Hits 5 into an exception that proves the rule? Let us hope so...

Cyndi Lauper - 'True Colors'

It’s become something of a journalistic cliche to refer to Cyndi Lauper as being Christina Aguilera to Madonna’s Britney Spears. Though on face value there does seem to be something in this, on slightly-deeper-than-face-value it doesn’t really fit at all. Aside from the fact that this analogy does a tremendous disservice to Madonna – unless Britney has somehow managed to sneak out her own personal Dear Jessie without anyone actually noticing – it also conveniently ignores the fact that however she might have been pushed to the public by her record label and management, Cyndi Lauper wasn’t so much an ‘answer’ to Madonna as she was part of a full-on late eighties invasion of ‘kooky’ red-haired American women, with the likes of Katie Puckrik, Laurie Pike, Tori Amos, Sandra Bernhard, Ruby Wax, Rita Rudner and many more wowing Brit-based audiences with their loudmouthed ditzy zaniness, multicoloured ra-ra skirts, eyebrow-raising backcombing, and personalities somewhere between Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In and a gold-digging heiress telling Bertie Wooster he’s engaged to them whether he likes it or not.

That said, one sense in which the analogy does fit is that Cyndi Lauper was every bit as alarmingly musically unpredictable as Christina Aguilera, darting between styles, genres, tempos and even levels of frivolity in a manner that continually wrongfooted both those who had liked and those had who hated Girls Just Wanna Have Fun. Indeed, her most recent single prior to the one you’ll find on Hits 5 had been the decidedly less than musically and ideologically heavyweight theme to that video shop-hogging film that everyone in 1986 had seen but you, Goonies ‘R’ Good Enough. True Colors, the lead single and indeed title track from her second album, had been written especially for her by mid-eighties uber-hitmakers Billy Steinberg and Tom Kelly – chart-topping song-merchants for the likes of The Bangles and Heart – as an overwrought piano-pounding gospel number, but at Lauper’s insistence it became the sparse, haunting, half-whispered arrangement that really did the song justice, emphasised by a surreal symbolism-laden stream-of-consciousness video that seems to have accidentally invented all of Helena Bonham Carter’s bits in Tim Burton’s films. For extra kookiness points, it also features a ra-ra skirt made of dollar bills.

Though it was deservedly yet another chart-topper for Steinberg and Kelly in America, over here True Colors almost unbelievably stalled at number twelve, which makes it all the more surprising that it’s since become so well remembered that some pillock decides to embellish a TV advert with an, erm, ‘slow’ version roughly every three minutes. On Hits 5, it’s a strong start to side three, which of course has the dubious distinction of being the traditional ‘ballads side’. And since these are mid-eighties ballads, chances are that the quality level is about to tail off very dramatically indeed…

Boris Gardiner - 'You're Everything To Me'

A good deal of this re-appraisal of Hits 5 thus far has concentrated on the post-Live Aid struggle between the born-again followers of stadium rock who preached that the exciting new sounds of Brian May’s squiggly soloing had come to replace your old-hat synthesiser (except when he used one on One Vision) and who really understood the lyrics of Born In The USA, and disgruntled Nik Kershaw fans who couldn’t understand why nobody was buying Radio Musicola. Existing entirely independently of this furious equation, however, were the large number of people who, when it comes down to it, simply Like A Good Tune. The same sort of listener who, earlier in 1986, had sent Chris De Burgh to the top of the charts for an obscene amount of time. And who, only a couple of weeks later, pulled off the same trick again for I Wanna Wake Up With You by Boris Gardiner.

Though he had form as a full-on proper serious cred reggae musician, there is no getting away from the fact that I Wanna Wake Up With You was intentionally fashioned for maximum sales-boosting easy-on-the-ear blandness, and indeed seemingly tailor made for Derek Jameson’s Radio 2 breakfast show, where it sat unobtrusively amongst the oft-expressed lack of belief over what ‘the telly people’ were planning to foist on ‘us’ later that day. Small wonder, then, that it should have been followed shortly afterwards by the almost-identical You’re Everything To Me, which closely adhered to the standard form for follow-ups to surprise chart-toppers by rocketing to number eleven and then disappearing from sight - and indeed, it seems, musical history - just as quickly again.

There’s not really that much to say about You’re Everything To Me – even less than there is to say about I Want To Wake Up With You – other than that it’s the commercial track record and enduring massive popularity this sort of musical whitewash that eventually led to the rise of Simon Cowell, and that whether anyone reading this likes it or not, Boris and his ilk outsold The Stranglers, Haywoode and Eurythmics alike in massive amounts, and as such this is perhaps the most out-of-place track on the whole of Hits 5, and certainly the one that paints the least vivid picture of the pop scene in late 1986. Though some of his tracklisting near neighbours weren’t exactly far off…

Rod Stewart - 'Every Beat Of My Heart'

Roderick David Stewart. Rod The Mod. Rod Made About Three Decent Records In 1970 Before Devoting Himself Exclusively To Chatting With Michael Parkinson And Wearing Daft Hats. Yes, whatever the era, whatever the genre, whatever the prevailing globalist sociocultural phase-shift, Rod Stewart has somehow always been around like some kind of post-Glam Rock Zelig, peddling the exact same act to unwavering commercial success and bewildering levels of popular affection, not least since the tiresome Music Festival industry bestowed ‘living legend’ status upon him.

1986, and indeed the eighties in general, was – you will no doubt be unsurprised to hear – no exception to this. While many of his peers at least made some varying attempts to move with the times – even Elton John was moved to ruminate on the Cold War and Apartheid in hit singles, even if he did then go and douse them liberally in ridiculous synthesiser noises - Rod just kept on churning out the same old bagpipe-drenched chat show band blues with the same old themes about travelling very slowly towards your ‘home town’. Every Beat Of My Heart, the title track of his 1986 album, which somehow managed to climb to number two when released as a single, wasn’t his worst crime of the eighties – that dubious honour must surely go to his mauling of This Old Heart Of Mine, which added insult to injury by roping in one of the Isley Brothers to drive the getaway car – but it wasn’t far off.

Sounding like a cross between a bad wine bar band version of Berlin’s Take My Breath Away and the sort of signature tunes the BBC Radiophonic Workshop were hammering out after they got a little too excited about Fairlights and MIDI (and with, inevitably, some bloody bagpipes in the middle), Every Beat Of My Heart chronicles, you guessed it, Rod’s desire to return to his ‘home town’ (apparently by, erm, seagull), a point that is oh so subtly alluded to by a video in which he boards a train and departs sepia-tinted frontier-days America for the comforts of modern-day full colour Scotland, somehow gaining a tie en route. In the circumstances, it’s probably best to deposit this song on a train headed for as far away from Hits 5 as possible. Meanwhile, there should be one pulling in from Chicago in a minute…

Peter Cetera - 'The Glory Of Love'

Given that big overwrought ballad film theme tie-in singles were pretty much the biggest commercial pop proposition of the entire the mid-eighties, and that there’s more than one example of the art form included on Hits 5, it’s something of a surprise that it’s taken until halfway through the third side to come across one. Glory Of Love, however, more than makes up for this wait. Taken from the awkwardly punctuated film The Karate Kid, Part II, where it appeared on the soundtrack alongside such artistically vibrant mid-eighties trailblazers as Carly Simon, Southside Johnny, The Moody Blues and - lest we forget - Fish For Life by bizarre Tears For Fears spinoff Mancrab, it could not have been a more suitable musical accompaniment for a second helping of Ralph Macchio’s adventures in trouncing the evil pupils of that bloke from Cagney & Lacey with the aid of some karate he’d learned by waxing a car, inspiring a million bored transatlantic schoolchildren to fashion those bandage things they’d been using to take their pulse with in double biology into makeshift ‘Karate Kid’ headbands before not actually bothering to see the film itself.

As Peter Cetera’s regular band Chicago had more or less invented the LA Law Theme-style sax-heavy muted-chord soft-rock sound that sonically typified the mid-eighties, it was only fair that he should have enjoyed a slice of solo chart action himself. In fact, probably more due to the radio-conquering appeal of the song itself than any actual levels of excitement over the parent film, Glory Of Love ended up topping the chart practically everywhere in the world; apart from, needless to say, the UK, where the martial arts craze had been and gone ten years earlier and had long since dissipated into the embarrassing realms of ‘Ever Thought Of Sport?’ campaigns and Alex Kingston playing a ‘judo expert’ on Grange Hill. Combined with the underwhelmed reaction towards a film that was generally considered to be no Back To The Future/Teen Wolf, this resulted in the hapless Mr. Cetera stalling at a lowly – yet still impressive compared to some of the chart disasters we’ve had on here – number three on the official Gallup-compiled UK Singles Chart.

Glory Of Love sounds probably pretty much how you remember it sounding – or, if you’ve never heard it before, probably pretty much how you’d expect to remember it sounding – full of soft keyboard tones, phatic exclamations of romantic adulation mixed in with some weird fairytale bits about a castle far away, compressed squealing guitars doing that ‘one random really high note’ thing, slamming drums just before the chorus, and the trademark Cetera low-bitrate-MP3-esque vocals. It’s also got probably pretty much the sort of video you’d expect, made up entirely of soft-focus miming in front of some sliding paper doors that occasionally part to reveal not-particularly-exciting clips from the film. And yet, despite all that, it’s actually rather likeable as this sort of mid-eighties movie-derived musical monstrosity goes, and while it would certainly need more than ‘wax on wax off’ to hold its own against Don’t Leave Me This Way, Suburbia or Some Candy Talking, it’s a pleasant enough and indeed evocative enough easy-on-the-ear mainstream hit covered in lashings of melted processed cheese. More to the point, it’s a flash of brightness on this most tedious of sides of Hits 5. And believe me, things are about to get very dull indeed…

George Michael - 'A Different Corner'

1986 was a big year for Wham!, for fans of Wham!, and for people who hated Wham! alike. For it was the year that pop’s least aware-of-the-major-globocultural-concerns-of-the-early-eighties duo decided to call it a day, with a series of Wembley Stadium-mounted farewell concerts played out to the inevitable end-of-days fan hysteria, and the release of a career-spanning double-album compilation retrospective which appeared to suggest that in their own heads they were possessed of the diversity of David Bowie, the longevity of Prince, and the obscurity-strewn-back-catalogue-ness of The Television Personalities. While Andrew Ridgeley would quietly retire from the public eye, marrying the hot one from Bananarama and investing his musical millions into helping Rohm Dutt quell an uprising of Swampies or something, George Michael had already tested the water for a solo career with two huge hits – gift-that-keeps-giving for chocolate-based pun lovers Careless Whisper in 1984, and A Different Corner shortly before the Wham! day-calling announcement in 1986. At this stage, there was still no hint of anything to do with narcotics, public conveniences, or collaborations with the people behind ITV’s single poorest excuse for a satire show ever (and yes that does include Stuff The Week).

Look, do we really need an entry on A Different Corner? Can’t we just pretend it’s failed ‘compliance’ like Morris Mitchener, and move on to the much more interesting next track on Hits 5? What do you mean, the people who’ve been reading the series so far expect that at the very least it will be listened to and commented on? That’s how the USSR got started! Oh alright then: weedy instrumentation, lack of any tangible melodic structure, overwrought woe-is-me lyrics, overenunciated vocals, unlikeable singer posing in what appears to be a Habitat catalogue shot in ‘arty’ black and white. There. That’s your lot.

A Different Corner, incidentally, was a chart-topper back in April 1986 – literally a different corner of the year – so what in the name of sanity it was doing tainting a collection of hits from the tail-end of the year is anyone’s guess. It’s not like The Final and indeed the single itself hadn’t been bought in their millions already anyway. So let’s just treat it as the abberation in every sense of the word that it is, and get on with the serious business of making surreal throwaway jokes about some of the least epochal pop singles of all time…

Shakin' Stevens - 'Because I Love You'

Even though he’d literally only just scored a well-deserved chart-topper with fifties-meet-eighties high watermark Merry Christmas Everyone, 1986 was a bit of a ‘Whither Shaky?’ moment for everyone’s favourite Madeley-walloping neon-collared neo-Rock’n'Roller. Seemingly feeling that the denim-dominated black-shirt-white-tie rockabilly-for-the-ZX81-era thing was in danger of outstaying its welcome, Shaky would spend the next two years attempting to diversify his sound with a little-remembered Motown Phase, a surprisingly successful flirtation with House Music, a smattering of covers of obscure T-Rex numbers, and even an album-side-long frantic live medley of some of his old favourites, though there was of course still room for a memorably swaggering revival of What Do You Want To Make Those Eyes At Me For?, accompanied by an equally memorable video featuring comedy copper-infuriating postbox-leaping antics, punk-serenading silliness, and an early appearance by one Vic Reeves. He did stop short of ‘goth’, however.

Needless to say, this excursion into experimentalism didn’t last, and 1988′s I Might was proudly promoted as a good old rockin’ and indeed rollin’ return to what ‘the fans’ really wanted, albeit shoved into a sleeve depicting Shaky amongst a small army of Viz characters for good sales-attracting measure. And, to be fair, the genre-hopping years had indeed seen a slight dip in chart statistics, though what’s surprising in retrospect is that the most successful of those singles – barring What Do You Want To Want To Make Those Eyes At Me For? – was the one that was perhaps the furthest removed from Shaky’s traditional musical style; synth-driven lighters-in-the-air ballad Because I Love You.

Though the video is basically laugh-free nothingness made up entirely of Shaky doing decidedly un-Shaky-like soft-focus ‘meaningful’ looks to camera in some sort of Camp David-esque woodland retreat, the first verse at least is a lot more folky and interesting than memory would suggest; it’s only later that it becomes swamped in tedious sub-Paul Young fretless bass and that ubiquitous mid-eighties ridiculous Nikita-esque synth trumpet sound. On top of that, it’s also a rather wishy-washy song, with bland lyrics and a melody so weedy it might as well be spluttering to a halt while being beaten into last place in a school sports day by Einstein from Skool Daze.

Shakin’ Stevens, whether the irony merchants or indeed the ‘cool’ merchants like it or not, has made some great records. This, while not actually being a bad record, is not one of them. Still, at least it’s pleasant and unassuming and musically keeps itself to itself, which you can’t exactly say about every track on Hits 5

Whitney Houston - 'Greatest Love Of All'

You really have to be careful how you talk about Whitney Houston. It’s all very well and good having found the majority of her music intolerable, and having laughed for about three days solid at Mark Radcliffe’s sarcastic “isn’t that right, Whitney?”, and always hearing Armando Iannucci’s remix of I Will Always Love You in your head rather than the original, and indeed resenting the role she inadvertently played not just in the rise of X Factor culture but also in Glee opting to abandon all of that pesky razor-sharp satire of the fame industry and surrealist bits with Brittany in favour of endless episodes where they all sing one song each by a ‘musical legend’ and NOTHING ELSE, but there’s plenty of people out there who don’t feel like that, and if you do feel like that, well, you can always just sod off and listen to Moose. At the end of the day, unlike many of her peers, she made some good records in her time and didn’t really do any harm to anyone but herself, and it’s not really fair to upset her fans when there isn’t really any good or worthwhile reason to do so. And anyway, all of those grumblings belong to the ‘future’, and we’re currently stuck squarely in late 1986 and Hits 5.

In fact, Whitney’s greatest musical moment was technically still in the ‘future’ too, as 1987 would see her release second album Whitney and a startlingly good run of singles that included Love Will Save The Day and So Emotional, for which her confusingly-titled debut album Whitney Houston and its attendant singles seem in retrospect to have been merely a warm-up. That’s not to say they were in any way poor songs though – yes, as ever, there were far too many ballads, but they were at least tuneful and likeable ballads, and she hadn’t got into that thing of using three hundred and seventy eight notes where one would have done yet either. Greatest Love Of All had in fact originally been the b-side of an earlier single, but was re-recorded for single release and album-tacked-on-ness at Whitney’s own insistence and against her record label’s advice, which shows she had a bit of commercial sense about her at that point too.

So much so, in fact, that Greatest Love Of All is one of the few songs on Hits 5 that really needs no introduction nor indeed discussion; it’s a soaring yet surprisingly subdued-for-its-time ballad with powerfully-delivered lyrics about – what else? – overcoming the odds, not to mention a borderline-tongue-in-cheek video worthy of, well, Glee, and you’ll still hear it at least once a week even now. See ‘Belouis’, we told you the post-New Romantic thing had a limited shelf life, but did you listen? That said, not all hit ballads by established ‘soul greats’ would go on to enjoy such enduring popularity…

Lionel Richie - 'Love Will Conquer All'

The problem with side three of Hits 5 – the ‘ballads side’, if you will – is that most of the artists featured on it have enjoyed long and hugely successful careers, meaning that it’s virtually impossible to make talking about their songs in any way evocative even of 1986 in general, let alone late 1986 in particular. Perhaps this is some sort of karmic retribution for the relentless rubbishing of the Live Aid-fuelled resurgence of the whole stadium megastar industry thing that dominated earlier ramblings about Hollywood Beyond and Nick Kamen, but at the same time this stuff really was huge in 1986 in particular and therefore it’s only fair and right that it should be so heavily represented on an album collecting some of the hits of the year. The only real downside to this is that it makes it virtually impossible to crowbar in any arcane humorous references to All The Bunch Love Dairy Crunch, Yes Of Course Christmas On 4, or That’s All From This Week Next Week For This Week We’ll See You Again On This Week Next Week Next Week So Until Next Week From This Week Next Week Goodbye.

Lionel Richie has been a huge star from the late sixties right up to the unexpectedly witty and self-parodic appearance he more than likely made on at least one television chat show last week, meaning that he’s about as 1986 as Ya Kid K pulling up on a Ninja Scootech to get some Tab Clear from Netto. His string of well-remembered hits of the year – which ranged from clue’s-in-the-title weedy ballad Ballerina Girl to the frankly inexplicable Dancing On The Ceiling, a song which he had apparently deliberately written in a fit of tongue-in-cheek subversiveness after seeing himself described as a ‘balladeer’ – fit about as well into the panoramic Phil-Cool-drinking-Citrus-Spring-while-watching-The-Trial-Of-A-Time-Lord meta-construct as the famously ridiculous spontaneous papier-mache-modelling of his head in the Hello video resonates with Threads. In between those two point-straying singles came the one – yes, yet another ballad – that would end up closing the third side of Hits 5; Love Will Conquer All.

If you’re struggling to remember how Love Will Conquer All went, that’s probably because the single itself failed to conquer much of anything at all, missing the top forty completely on release (though it was a top ten hit in America). The surprise, then, is that it’s actually quite good, veering off into Will Downing-esque ‘Smooth Jazz’ territory with plinky plonky synth tones, and accompanied an amusing video in which Lionel drives virtually the entire length of America through adverse weather conditions to find out why some woman with a very long phone number won’t return his calls. True, it’s not particularly musically distinguished or exciting, but it’s the sort of song you really wouldn’t mind hearing on an oldies station. If they really had to play something other than ‘Belouis’ ‘Some’, that is. And with that, the ballads side is over, and we’re into a fourth side that’s practically collapsing under the weight of 1986-reference-friendly forgotten pop ephemera…