“But we didn’t actually try to do anything about the issues we all knew she had. We just continued to make money off her by dragging her fraying body out as a freak show/guest star every so often for your entertainment so we could sell more advertising space. We played on her issues. We preyed on them. In fact, now I come to think about it I am a despicable cunt. What I’ve become shames and disgusts me. I shall now do the honourable thing and kill myself,” he didn’t continue.
- Learned more than he ever wanted to know about multiple myeloma, bone marrow transplants, quadruple heart bypass surgery and the work of cardiac intensive care nursing staff.
- Spent a lot of time driving up and down the M1.
- Lost 70lbs.
- Put 28lbs back on.
- Lost another 21lbs.
- Put another 18lbs back on.
- Lost another 14lbs.
- Joined the Labour Party in the hope that the new leader wouldn’t be a breathtakingly clueless wanker of the first water.
- Resigned from the Labour Party due to the breathtaking cluelessness of its new leader, Edward Samuel Miliband, Wanker of the First Water.
- Helped fund four albums (by Sophie Madeleine, Emmy The Great, Terra Naomi and a work-still-in-progress by Kat Edmondson). Girls with guitars, eh?
- Been very impressed indeed by and become very well acquainted with the music of John Grant, The Wellspring, Sun Kil Moon, School Of Seven Bells, Alicia Witt, The National, Pete Yorn, Hannah Peel and A Fine Frenzy.
- Bought Tom McRae‘s back catalogue. Some fucker’s got to feed his pigs.
- Watched a lot of House, Wallander and Community, while wishing I lived in the States so I could watch more of Craig Ferguson.
- Got an iPad.
- Bought my godson his first iPod.
- Waved a fond farewell to Chesterfield FC’s “atmospheric” old stadium on Saltergate.
- Watched in open-mouthed amazement as Chesterfield FC won the Fourth Division title in their first season in their really rather fabulous new stadium.
- Bought a couple of domain names I like a lot.
- Almost completely deGoogleified my life. Fuck, that felt good.
- Discovered and greatly approved of Mighty Leaf Teas.
- Got even more anal about fonts and typefaces.
- Fell in love some fabulous Mac software – Alfred, Flow, Hype, iA Writer, Sparrow.
- Installed a PowerLine network at the Ministerial Residence. (I’m sure the Minister’s Wife would have preferred me to redecorate the staircase and landing, but you have to pace yourself at my age.)
- Discovered that Nerina Pallot is a seriously top lass. (Her new album’s out next week.)
- Fell for Pop Culture Happy Hour. Glen Weldon is now my personal hero. (Mistyped that last sentence. It originally said “Glen Weldon is now my personal herp”. I think Glen Weldon would approve.)
- Had a Twitter exchange with Nicky Fucking Campbell in which I was so civil I did not once call him “Nicky Fucking Campbell”.
- Saw several David Ford gigs (travelling 150 miles through a snowstorm to attend one) and read David Ford’s book, I Choose This. Was not disappointed once.
- Had brief work-related journeys to Miami, Puerto Rico, San Francisco, Paris, Munich, Madrid and Stockholm. Didn’t really enjoy them but Stockholm is lovely (as are its inhabitants).
- Came up with an idea for Coalition Cabinet Toilet Paper, because wiping my arse is the only thing that shower of unmitigated cock cheese is fit for.
- Generally despaired rather a lot.
All right, pop pickers? Eyes down, look in.
20. Belly, Now They’ll Sleep, 1995
I haven’t been down the front at a gig since seeing Belly twice in a week, at Nottingham and Sheffield, in early 1995. I was pushing 23, my hair was on the way out (as was my gut) and I didn’t want it to become embarrassing. But I certainly enjoyed those last couple of sweaty evenings, regardless of how many bruised ribs I sustained in the process.
Belly shone briefly but brightly and Now They’ll Sleep was the first single to be taken from their second and final album, King. While the NME sniffily dismissed King as an overly-commercial follow up to Belly’s resolutely indie debut Star, its preponderance of riffs and hooks made it an instant favourite of mine and placed Belly firmly in the realms of power pop-rockers such as Blondie and The Knack.
The distorted guitars of Now They’ll Sleep’s intro bring to mind The White Album, before the band cranks out one of its best straight-out rockers. And the lyrical hook, “You know the shape my breath will take before I let it out,” is one of Tanya Donelly’s most memorable lyrics.
The thought, let alone the actuality, of throwing myself around in a mosh pit today terrifies even me. But songs like this can still sometimes have me bouncing around the living room.
Now They’ll Sleep made number 28 in March 1995. It did not chart in America.
19. U2, One, 1992
So much – too much – has been written about U2 and Achtung Baby that I am loth to add to the canon save to say that One is a really, really fine record. One made number 7 in the UK in April 1992; it peaked at #10 in the USA. To quote Bono:
“It is a song about coming together, but it’s not the old hippie idea of ‘Let’s all live together’. It is, in fact, the opposite. It’s saying: ‘We are one, but we’re not the same.’ It’s not saying we even want to get along, but that we have to get along together in this world if it is to survive. It’s a reminder that we have no choice.”
18. Skunk Anansie, Weak, 1996
17. Skunk Anansie, Hedonism (Just Because You Feel Good), 1997
Skunk Anansie’s lead singer, Skin, may have had the best image of any group’s lead singer ever. If you tried to manufacture the most striking and memorable persona possible for a group’s focal point you would probably end up with someone like Skin. It helped that she can’t half sing.
I didn’t really fall for the band’s more strident “clit rock” output but when it came to rockin’ ballads, Skunk Anansie were the dope.
Weak was taken from the band’s 1995 debut album, Paranoid and Sunburnt, and made number 20 in early 1996.
Hedonism came from its 1997 follow-up, Stoosh. It peaked at number 13 and was another song on heavy rotation on MTV Europe that summer.
16. Belly, Feed The Tree, 1993
From Belly’s first album, Star, Feed The Tree made it to number 32 in January 1993 on this side of the Atlantic, and number 95 on the Billboard Hot 100, Belly’s biggest American hit.
15. Pulp, Disco 2000, 1995
Did you think I’d forgotten them…?
Disco 2000 brought Pulp’s breathtaking 1995 to a close, the third release from Different Class, albeit in a re-mixed form, and their third consecutive Top Ten hit (it peaked at number 7 in December).
Another of Cocker’s kitchen sink mini-operas of unrequited lust, Disco 2000 tells of the protagonist’s feelings for his childhood friend:
Oh, Deborah, do you recall?
Your house was very small
With wood chip on the wall.
When I came around to call
You didn’t notice me at all.
It inspired me to write something in 1996, but we won’t go there.
14. Blondie, Maria, 1999
One of the highlights of my musical life was seeing Blondie live in London as part of their reunion tour in November 1998. There they introduced the song that would be their comeback single, Jimmy Destri’s Maria. In February 1999 it would reach the top of the British charts, a full 20 years after their first chart-topper (Heart Of Glass) and 18 years after their last (The Tide Is High). Maria wouldn’t have sounded out of place on Parallel Lines or Eat To The Beat and more than punches it weight in the Blondie back catalogue. It felt very, very good to have them back.
13. Green Day, Good Riddance (Time Of Your Life), 1998
Even punks have feelings, it seems. To quote Green Day’s singer and this song’s composer Billie Joe Armstrong:
“At the time I wrote Good Riddance, I was breaking up with a girl that was moving to Ecuador, and I was trying to be as understanding about it as I could. I wrote the song as kind of a bon voyage. I was trying not to be bitter, but I think it came out a little bit bitter anyway… I thought that calling the song “Time of Your Life” was just a little too level-headed for me, so I had to come up with something different.”
From the album Nimrod, the song reached number 11 in January 1998. Seven months later, thanks to the subversive work of an inspired production assistant within ITV Sport, a song called Good Riddance was played over the closing credits of the live coverage of the England’s elimination from the France ’98 World Cup Finals: sublime.
More cellos here, you’ll note. (Between you and me, the arrangement and orchestration of this song can still bring me to tears when I’m in the right mood.)
12. Pulp, Do You Remember The First Time?, 1994
Oh, look: more Pulp.
While 1995′s Different Class propelled the band to stardom, its 1994 predecessor His ‘N’ Hers – nominated for that year’s Mercury Prize and beaten to the title by, ahem, M People – was perhaps just as strong an album. Released a week before that album in April 1994, Do You Remember The First Time? became, aptly, Pulp’s first chart hit, climbing to number 33.
You say you’ve got to go home:
Well, at least there’s someone there that you can talk to
And you never have to face up to the night on your own…
Now I don’t care what you’re doing;
I don’t care if you screw him
Just as long as you save a piece for me.
The stage was set for Jarvis Cocker to become British pop’s best lyricist in a generation.
11. Radiohead, Street Spirit (Fade Out), 1996
Sticking true to my pure pop sensibilities, I sold my shares in Radiohead at precisely the point everyone else started buying them. Debut album Pablo Honey was good; follow-up The Bends was immense. I remain an OK Computer sceptic; from that point they became, to me, a band that produced at least a couple of really good tracks each album, but their wilful perversion of their music has dulled my interest.
Street Spirit (Fade Out) was a band at the peak of its powers. Almost fifteen years on I don’t know what most of the lyrics are and I haven’t a clue what the song is about. None of that matters: just listen to how it sounds!
In looking up the song’s chart performance for this list I happened across Thom Yorke’s explanation of it:
“Street Spirit is our purest song… Its core is a complete mystery to me, and, you know, I wouldn’t ever try to write something that hopeless. All of our saddest songs have somewhere in them at least a glimmer of resolve. Street Spirit has no resolve. It is the dark tunnel without the light at the end. It represents all tragic emotion that is so hurtful that the sound of that melody is its only definition…
“Our fans… don’t realise what they’re listening to. They don’t realise that Street Spirit is about staring the fucking devil right in the eyes, and knowing, no matter what the hell you do, he’ll get the last laugh. And it’s real, and true. The devil really will get the last laugh in all cases without exception, and if I let myself think about that too long, I’d crack.”
Released in February 1996, Street Spirit reached number five in the charts.
Its iconic, stunning video was directed by Jonathan Glazer, who had previously directed the video for another song still to appear on this list.
10. Britney Spears, …Baby One More Time, 1998
It is now almost impossible to hear this song without thinking of the train wreck that has become Ms. Spears’ existence, which inevitably detracts from its dazzling brilliance.
It doesn’t matter that the song’s writer and co-producer Max Martin is a write-by-numbers kind of guy: if he was aiming to write a song that pushed every button in the perfect pop song pantheon, he succeeded beyond all imagination. The single made number one EVERYWHERE in early 1999; it remains the 25th best-selling single of all time in the UK (and only one single, by a Pop Idol winner, has subsequently sold more copies in this country). How it didn’t sweep the board at the 2000 Grammys and Brits, I’ll never know.
There is no doubt that some of the single’s success lay with its ‘schoolgirl’ video and that its title deliberately courted controversy (self-consciously tipping its hat to Phil Spector’s universally-banned (He Hit Me) And It Felt Like A Kiss), but at its heart it’s a sensational slice of pop music. Stripped of both its title and video, this song would still have romped to the top of the charts and it would still have transcended usual standards and made the leap from ‘chart topper’ to ‘piece of the musical furniture’ reserved for the very shiniest objects in the pop firmament.
I am not a fan of AutoTune and I would have produced the single differently, but no doubt I would have fucked it up immensely in the process. This is monumental exactly as it is. And you know we should be glad.
9. The Verve, The Drugs Don’t Work, 1997
A song simultaneously about heroin addiction and chemotherapy made it to number one in the UK charts in the second week of September 2007. Apparently this is because the first thing people did when they heard of Diana’s death was to rush down to Woolworth’s and buy this record (at least until Elton’s very special offering hit the shops). I personally find that interpretation of history offensive, not least because it vastly underestimates the power and appeal of The Verve’s finest moment – a power and appeal that prevailed long after Dianamania had subsided and persist to this day. (Meanwhile, when was the last time you heard Candle In The Wind 1997…?)
Certainly it sits incongruously in the list of number ones from the second half of 1997, jostling for elbow room as it does with MMMBop, Men In Black, Barbie Girl and the Teletubbies. But this acoustic ballad, starkly recording Richard Ashcroft’s drug addiction, his father’s death and his relationship with his wife remains at its core a love song.
A lush but light orchestration, a glorious steel guitar (there it is again…), some phenomenal drumming by Peter Salisbury, and the best vocal of Ashcroft’s life (recorded in one take) add up to a single more worthy of chart-topping status than most of the 1,104 records to achieve that status to date.
8. Blur, The Universal, 1995
May any celestial being that does exist smite British Gas and its advertising agency: this record should not be condemned to a life accompanying propaganda for a utilities monopolist. If you’re in marketing, kill yourself.
Having had their backsides handed to them by Oasis when the bands’ albums – The Great Escape and (What’s The Story) Morning Glory – finally appeared in September 1995, Blur – so often mentioned alongside The Kinks – invited further comparisons to Sixties mod outfits by purloining the title of a Small Faces hit from 1968.
While The Great Escape’s lead single, Country House, had jauntily pogoed its way to victory over Roll With It in the summer singles chart battle with Oasis, the album’s second single, The Universal, was a more sombre affair. Gone, too, were the affability of Parklife and the joie de vivre of Girls And Boys: The Universal is instead dominated by an orchestra and supernatural choirs. Graham Coxon’s guitar, piercing the claustrophobia of the verses, and Dave Rowntree’s drumbeats, accenting the choruses, are the only obviously recognisable Blur contributions to the recording, save for Damon Albarn’s vocal.
If the sound is panoramic, then the band shrouded the song in the visual trappings of science fiction: the cover of the single mirrors the opening of Kubrick’s 2001AD and the video – the second here directed by Jonathan Glazer – adopted some of the themes of the great man’s A Clockwork Orange.
The Universal reached number five in December 1995.
Prior to being pillaged by British Gas, The Universal played out over the end credits of the coverage of the 2003 Rugby World Cup Final, won by England with the last kick of the game: “It really, really, really could happen…” There’s some poor sod working within ITV Sport with great musical taste.
7. Crowded House, Distant Sun, 1993
To the cognoscenti, Neil Finn is rightly acclaimed as one of pop music’s greatest ever composers. The four albums released by Crowded House before the group’s initial split rate alongside the best in the canon. Sadly, however, the record-buying public doesn’t know its musical arse from its elbow.
While 1991′s Woodface had partially broken the band in Britain, it almost willfully sabotaged their careers in America (where their 1986 debut had shifted millions): releasing a single containing the lyrics, “The excess of fat on your American bones/ Will cushion the impact as you sink like a stone,” is probably not the best way for a band to endear itself to the Stateside market.
By the recording of fourth album Together Alone, the band couldn’t get arrested in the States and was only occasionally troubling the upper reaches of the British charts. Finn retreated to his native New Zealand to craft the best collection of songs of the band’s career.
First single, Distant Sun, combines the band’s trademark glorious harmonies with chiming chords and guitar licks to distill the essence of a rocky relationship:
You come around and spin my top
Time and again…
Will your words devour my heart
And put me to shame?
Seven worlds collide
Whenever I am by your side…
I don’t pretend to know what you want
But I offer love.
Though Together Alone made number four on the British album charts, by the time the album’s promotional tour ended drummer Paul Hester had quit and the band were all but finished. At this precise point, the public finally woke up: Recurring Dream, the band’s farewell compilation, topped the British charts (going five times platinum in the process), while 200,000 attended the Farewell To The World concert on the steps of the Sydney Opera House in June 1996.
Crowded House are often lazily described by witless music journalists as “Beatlesque”. Distant Sun, however, is a good enough song to withstand genuine comparison to the Lennon-McCartney songbook.
Distant Sun made number 19 in the British singles chart in September 1993.
(Fact: this record first made me want to play the bass guitar – specifically the descending line at the end of the first chorus. Excellent work, Mr. Seymour.)
6. McAlmont & Butler, Yes, 1995
Break-up songs traditionally focus on heartbreak, abandonment, loneliness and despair. But most of us know that there is another side to (some) break ups: the “fuck you” moment. The moment you know you’re not only over him/her but also the moment where you can flaunt that fact in the other person’s face, particularly if they’re attempting to reconcile.
So you want to know me now?
How I’ve been?
You can’t help someone recover
After what you did.
So tell me: am I looking better?
Have you forgot
Whatever it was that you couldn’t stand about me?
Yes, I do feel better.
Yes, I do: I feel all right.
I feel well enough to tell you what you can do
With what you’ve got to offer…
And then just throw the works at the production: strings, more strings, massive drums, some more strings, layer upon layer of guitars, and a 6’2″ pipe cleaner-thin singer for whom the adjective “flamboyant” is an understatement and who possesses a three-octave range. Then, fuck it: stick some more strings on it. This song owes nothing to Britpop and everything to Phil Spector, Brian Wilson and the Production By Excess school.
To use mere words such as ‘anthem’ and ‘show-stopper’ are to do Yes’s creators a criminal disservice. This song demands not to be described, but heard: ideally by a brokenhearted specimen who eventually comes to jump around their bedroom bellowing “YE-E-E-E-E-E-S!” at the top of their lungs.
If only there were a second verse…
Yes reached number eight in June 1995.
5. R.E.M., Losing My Religion, 1991
R.E.M. are many things, but they are not a singles band. In the UK they’ve had only nine top 10 hits, the best-performing of which (The Great Beyond) made only number three. In America, they’ve cracked the Top 10 just four times, the last occasion being some 18 years ago. They’ve never topped either country’s singles chart.
Considering its impact (both at the time of its release and subsequently) it seems astonishing that Losing My Religion reached only #19 in the UK and #4 in the US, both in March 1991. Proof perhaps that the most resonant songs are about unrequited love or obsession (and the thin line between the two) it stayed in the Billboard Hot 100 for 21 weeks and won two Grammys. On the back of this advance single, the band’s seventh album Out Of Time went on to top both the British and American album charts, selling more than 10 million copies in the process.
18 years on, Losing My Religion remains a fixture on radio playlists across the world and gets the biggest cheer at every R.E.M. concert. The simple reason: it’s the best record they’ve ever made.
(Useless fact: according to Mike Mills on an R.E.M. bootleg I have, Losing My Religion is not referred to as Losing My Religion on Israeli radio but is instead called Oh, Life.)
4. Crowded House, Fall At Your Feet, 1991
Some songs are not meant to be written about; they should simply be savoured.
Fall At Your Feet reached #17 in the UK in October 1991.
3. Natalie Imbruglia, Torn, 1995
More slide guitar… (Am I a country and western fan without knowing it?)
Written by LA grunge-lite band Ednaswap with producer Phil Thornalley (a former bassist for The Cure), Torn was recorded by at least three acts (Ednaswap, Lis Sorensen and Trine Rein) before Imbruglia included it on her 1997 debut album Left Of The Middle.
Members of Ednaswap have consistently criticised Imbruglia’s version – but it’s noticeable that they both pocketed the royalties and (prior to their split) adopted the arrangement that turned their song into a massive global hit.
The reason why Ednaswap’s original failed where Imbruglia’s cover succeeded is clear: the cover version is better. It turns a neurotic and rather plodding song into a pop gem, Imbruglia’s breathy vocal in stark contrast to the harsh melodrama favoured by Ednaswap’s Anne Preven.
A number two British hit in November 1997 (denied top position by Aqua’s Barbie Girl), Torn sold 1.1 million copies and remains the second biggest-selling single in UK chart history not to reach number one. Never released as a single in the States, Torn nevertheless topped the Billboard Airplay Chart for 11 weeks through the spring and summer of 1998.
Useless facts: Backing vocals are provided by Katrina (of And The Waves and Eurovision fame); the record was mixed by Nigel Godrich (who went on to become Radiohead’s producer of choice and produce Travis and Sir Paul McCartney).
2. Kylie Minogue, Confide In Me, 1994
When considering Confide In Me you need to put it in context.
Kylie Minogue’s previous single – released in November 1992 – had been a cover version of Kool & The Gang’s Celebration that was so insipid it barely existed, lumbering to only number 20 in the UK charts – the lowest charting effort of her career. A few months before that had come her only marginally less anaemic cover version of Chairman Of The Board’s Give Me Just A Little More Time.
After a run of some genuinely thrilling pop records through 1990 and 1991 – Better The Devil You Know, Step Back In Time, What Do I Have To Do?, Shocked – Minogue had reverted to soulless bubblegum, nostalgia and treading water.
By August 1994 she was inhabiting a different planet entirely. From that planet – entirely out of nowhere – appeared the stunning, swirling, eastern sandstorm that is Confide In Me.
To this day I still don’t know whether ickle Kylie really hits those last few notes or whether they’re digitally manipulated. Either way, I don’t care because by the end of this record I am ready to capitulate entirely to her every whim. This majestic record – drawing its inspiration not from Kool’s Gang, but by liberally sampling The Doors’ The End – positively oozes sinister sensuality and self-confident sophistication in every gorgeous beat.
The record that can get me hotter under the collar than anything else released in the Nineties, Confide In Me was kept from the British chart summit by, ahem, Hugh Grant’s Wet Wet Wet’s Love Is All Around.
1. Pulp, Common People, 1995
Well, well, well: Pulp. Who’dathunkit? How predictable is this selection? Not bad for a tune composed on a second-hand Casio keyboard.
As soon as it hit the airwaves in the summer of 1995, Common People became a copper-bottomed classic. Yet by then the song had long been familiar on the indie scene. Indeed, so well known was it to listeners of John Peel’s Radio 1 show – thanks to Peel’s regular repeats of a version recorded by the band in a Peel Session – that it made number 21 in their “Festive 50″ for 1994.
This scathing putdown was inspired partially by the attitude of a rich art student of Cocker’s acquaintance and in part as a response to the mass media’s increasing fascination with ‘slumming it’. Cocker told Q magazine:
“It seemed to be in the air, that kind of patronising social voyeurism… I felt that of Parklife, for example, or Natural Born Killers – there is that noble savage notion. But if you walk round a council estate, there’s plenty of savagery and not much nobility going on.”
If Damon Albarn and Liam Gallagher were Britpop’s faces, the electronic pulse of Common People provided its soundtrack. It is not coincidence that the BBC has commissioned both radio and television documentaries about Common People in the 14 years since it was a hit. It is not coincidence that the latest Britpop compilation to hit the shops is entitled Common People: The Britpop Story. It is not coincidence that this record still features prominently on every list of the best British singles ever.
The Britpop era was short – it had long since peaked by the time Tony Blair swept to power in May 1997; indeed it may have drawn to close as Pulp picked up the Mercury Music Prize for Different Class in September 1996 – and not particularly sweet but it mattered to people like me who love pop music and it spawned some great music. That’s why so many of the 50 singles in this list represent the (non-existent) Britpop genre, and why the Britpop single nonpareil sits atop this list.
The last word goes to Cocker and the searing final verse of Common People edited from the single:
Like a dog lying in a corner
They will bite you and never warn you:
Look out! They’ll tear your insides out.
‘Cos everybody hates a tourist,
Especially one who thinks it’s all such a laugh
And the chip stains and grease will come out in the bath.
You will never understand how it feels to live your life
With no meaning or control and with nowhere left to go.
You are amazed that they exist
And they burn so bright whilst you can only wonder why.
Common People reached number two in June 1995. Remind me again: what kept it from the top spot…?
Fuck you very much, Mr. Cowell.
I’ve enjoyed this. Hope you have, too.
In fact, I might have to turn to the Eighties now…
Appropriate or not, perhaps the first thing I think of when I hear the name Michael Jackson is an unfortunate individual who followed me on air at a radio station in the late 1980s.
The odds were stacked against this chap – as thick as mince, no sense of humour and with multiple speech impediments, he spent much of his time in a world entirely of his own.
I once ended my programme one Friday evening in the summer of 1989 with the then current Jackson single Liberian Girl, which was – astonishingly – the ninth single to be taken from his 1987 album Bad.
I suspect my fellow presenter had no idea that there was a country called Liberia. Even if he knew, he couldn’t pronounce it.
“Michael Jackson there,” he back-announced as he took over the desk, “and Librarian Girl. I was at the library just this morning, as it happens, swapping some books and CDs…”
It took me nearly ten minutes to stop laughing. Bladder control was only just maintained.
I had never really considered myself much of a Michael Jackson fan – there were too many ambiguities to the man for me ever to take him to my heart – but I have been surprised to learn since his death that my iTunes music library contains 23 of his solo tracks, three duets and 21 more songs with various combinations of his brothers. In an iTunes library of 19,000 songs it’s not a lot, but there are only a handful of singers who appear on more than 47 songs in my collection.
That said, to anyone growing up through the Seventies and Eighties, Michael Jackson was an important – at times iconic – part of the musical landscape and I have never underestimated or under-appreciated the talent he brought to pop music and the part he played in its evolution.
We’ve witnessed this week a sad end to a sad life. To quote Popdose’s ever-quotable Dw. Dunphy:
Over the years his personal and professional lives had crumbled under the weight of scandal, strangeness, and the possibility he really was a criminal, smooth or otherwise. He became the picture of Dorian Gray hanging on a wall in the dilapidated receiving room of the Neverland Ranch, his home and personal playground. In the real world his achievements faded like his skin color, his moves stiffened into a frozen visage of surgical masks, glasses and disguises, and coats hastily thrown over his head. His music came sporadically and was never again as exciting as it once was.
Indeed, for all its wall-to-wall coverage the mainstream media has failed to acknowledge in the past 48 hours just how irrelevant – creatively and musically, at least – Michael Jackson had been for a very long time. Two days ago I would have said he had released no pop music of genuine brilliance in 22 years – since Bad (the album, not the limp single of the same name) saw the light of day in the summer of 1987. Having subsequently become forcibly reacquainted with every nook and cranny of his back catalogue thanks to the BBC, I would now concede that a couple of tracks from November 1991′s Dangerous might justify bringing that figure down to 17½ years.
But even my abiding soft spot for his 1995 duet with Janet, Scream, can’t sustain a claim that Michael Jackson has mattered musically for almost two decades now. To claim otherwise is revisionism, designed to distract attention from the freak show spectacle his life became. None of that, however, should detract for one second from the truly sensational music that went before.
For 20 years from the moment the Jackson Five hijacked the airwaves in 1969 with the irresistible I Want You Back through to Bad’s Smooth Criminal and Dirty Diana, Michael Jackson was undisputed pop music dynamite. In his solo prime Jackson leant heavily on the songwriting skills of Rod Temperton (who composed the songs Rock With You and Thriller, among others) and the production genius of Quincy Jones but the SMIPs were his alone – his squeal of inarticulacy during the introduction to Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough [0:15]; the cry of, ‘Just look over your shoulders, honey!”, aping Levi Stubbs at 3:03 of I’ll Be There; the call and response, “Baby!” with Jermaine during the third chorus of I Want You Back [2:19-2:22]… That list could go on.
It is hard to recall it now, but there was a time when his vocal hiccups were an exciting and exotic flavouring to the dish, rather than a too-often-reheated affectation; when there was not a middle-aged man trudging around a stage fiddling with his genitals, but a lithe and sinewy young man whose dancing could genuinely delight and thrill.
The recording of Billie Jean is immense in every respect. Bruce Swedien’s sound engineering is so crisp that it is possible to tell the record from half-a-bar of Ndugu Chancler’s drummed introduction alone – no drums in pop had ever sounded like that before; Louis Johnson’s bass had never rumbled along the bottom of a rhythmic valley so deep; Greg Phillinganes’ and Greg Smith’s synth lines throb beautifully; David Williams’ guitar sounds like he’d prised it forcibly from the hands of Nile Rodgers; Jerry Hey’s string stabs would have graced a Chic track every bit as much as a Hitchcock movie; and even Tom Scott’s (uncredited) flourishes with the ridiculed and ridiculous lyricon [at 1:13-1:14; 1:21-1:22; and 3:06-3:13] find a perfect home in this setting.
I have deliberately sought to banish from my head memories of my time as a boarder at a minor English public school in the early Eighties, but one thing that will stay with me forever is the excitement I felt first time I saw the video for Billie Jean on Top Of The Pops in early 1983 – a perfect union of sound and vision I will never, ever forget.
Retiring to bed this Thursday evening just passed I would never have imagined myself ever quoting the preposterous Sean Combs with approval, but his comment after the news of Jackson’s death broke overnight reminded me how I felt that Thursday evening in January 1983, sitting in my dressing gown before the television set in the assembly hall with 20 or so other boys:
Michael Jackson showed me that you can actually see the beat.
Billie Jean‘s relentless beat can be seen – exquisitely embodied by a nimble-footed, 24-year-old man in a pink shirt, red bowtie and black leather suit gliding down an illuminated pathway – even if you’re hearing it on the radio or your iPod.
The very best pop music is united by an undeniable urgency. Billie Jean has it by the bucketload. Whatever emerges over the coming weeks, it’s how I’ll remember Michael Jackson – preserved in time at the height of his musical powers, insulated from all that would come – and it’s my first Perfect Pop Single.
They know how to make their own fun in Slovenia.
Fucking Hell. I’m going to have to buy a fucking games console, aren’t I?
Visit Playing For Change.
Michael Jackson has delayed the opening four nights of his This Is It UK tour at London’s O2 arena.
The BBC understands the gigs have been delayed because the singer needs more time to rehearse.
The first show, on 8 July, has been pushed back by five nights. Three other July dates will not take place until March 2010.
I just didn’t imagine ANYTHING like this happening.