The Number Two's by Russell Thompson
I’d like to talk to you about number twos (yes, yes, grow up). It started when my co-blogger and I found that we had different memories as to whether Laurie Anderson’s ‘O Superman’ had ever made it to that all-important top spot (as they say) in the UK singles chart. It had, in fact, stalled at number two. Or – hey, let’s give it a bit of dignity here – Number Two.
‘O Superman’ is one of those songs (if song is the right word) that really should have been a Number One – timeless, eclectic; proof that the pop-kids are one step ahead of the squares. It ticks all the right boxes. Its only sour taste is the knowledge that Anderson refused to give clearance for Frank Sidebottom to record his cover version ‘O Supermum’, but that’s another blog-post altogether.
The internet seems to be awash with features on Brilliant Songs That Never Made No1. You know the sort of thing: yoghurt-brained list-journalism researched on Youtube and bashed out in half an hour. And they love a good angle. The problem with ‘O Superman’ is that being held off Number One by Dave Stewart & Barbara Gaskin’s ‘It’s My Party’ doesn’t really constitute a story. Dave ‘n’ Babs, despite their then-unhip prog origins, produced something just leftfield enough to remain acceptable today. After all, we still worship at the temple of early ’80s synth-pop, do we not? And lest you’ve forgotten, Ultravox’s ‘Vienna’ – arguably the genre’s apotheosis – famously spent four weeks at Number Two, kept at bay by Joe Dolce’s ‘Shaddap You Face’. How outrageous that a zeitgeisty, homegrown classic should be denied glory by an Australian-Italian-American confection feted only by Terry Wogan. What’s never mentioned is that ‘Shaddap’ was only at Number One for three of those four weeks; for the remaining week, it was John Lennon’s ‘Woman’. Which, of course, excites no comment at all. Just step right in, Mr Lennon, sir. Not-very-good-album-track-given-unwarranted-sales-boost-by-recent-tragic-murder? Nonsense. Again, no story.
I remember once hearing a Radio 1 deej, frustrated by the Top Forty incursion of the theme from ‘Fraggle Rock’, suggest that novelty records should not be allowed to clog up the real charts. He had a point, certainly, but it did beg the question of what constitutes a novelty record. Some might say that ‘O Superman’ itself was a novelty record, its main selling-points being its wilful otherness and that damned catchy ‘ah-ah-ah-ah’ noise. (Incidentally, a boy in my class had a rubber – that’s ‘eraser’ for our American readers – that could precisely replicate that sound when rubbed against the lid of his desk. Aye, made our own entertainment in them days…)
When you look at it like that, everything starts to seem like a novelty record. Even the Pistols’ ‘God Save the Queen’ – a record whose failure to reach Number One is now widely accepted to have been a piece of skulduggery on the part of a British Market Research Bureau afraid of rubbing Her Maj up the wrong way. I mean, I’m sure she had her ear glued to the chart rundown every Tuesday evening, and would’ve been very upset. For three decades we scoffed at this as an example of how fuddy-duddy we all used to be, until three years ago when Margaret Thatcher died and the BBC got similarly cold feet over playing the social-media-reappropriated ‘Ding Dong! The Witch is Dead’. Which also stalled at Number Two. Hmmm. Is there a conspiracy theorist in the house?
It seemed as if nothing more sinister than bureaucracy was at play the week in September 1990 when Deee-Lite’s ‘Groove is in the Heart’ sold exactly the same number of copies as ‘The Joker’ by the Steve Miller Band, but was denied joint Number Oneship because, well, it wasn’t allowed. It used to be allowed back in the ’60s: Frankie Vaughan and Guy Mitchell, or whoever, had to share the top of the pop-podium every now and then. But in 1990, in a move simply smacking of anal retentiveness, the matter was decided by whose sales had increased the most in the past week. And hey presto, ‘The Joker’ – surely the most boring song ever written – romped home.
Deee-Lite never did get to Number One. Nor, indeed, did Darts. Ah, Darts. Forgive me a nostalgic sigh. If you’re too young, too old, or have blotted out the memory, Darts were essentially a hipper version of Showaddywaddy (‘Impossible!’ you cry). Almost single-handedly – excuse the 45rpm pun – they spearheaded a doo-wop revival that ran alongside punk and shared much of its energy. With no fewer than four equally mad lead singers and a backline of hardened pub-rock veterans, Darts could allegedly drink any other band under the table and were no slouches in the recording studio either: a propensity that culminated in three consecutive Number Twos in one calendar year, 1978: ‘Come Back My Love’, ‘Boy From New York City’ and ‘It’s Raining’, classics all. I recently saw them at the Hammersmith Odeon, or whatever it was called that week, supporting Chas & Dave, another act that only narrowly missed the top of the charts (can you name their only Number Two without looking it up?). Of course, Chas & Dave were decreed by fate to never have a Number One. It’s probably set out in Nordic myth alongside the Twilight of the Gods, scratched in runes on some sea-battered rock towards the Arctic Circle. Nay, it shall not be the lot of he that is called Chas, nor of his boon-companion Dave, to sup at the same high table as Madonna, Jive Bunny and Chicory Tip. For they are underachievers to a man, and ever shall be so.
Which is perhaps the joy of Number Twos. We’re used to celebrating the plucky underdog who defies expectations by coming out on top, but not the plucky underdog who falls at the final hurdle. There’s something very ‘After you, Claude/No, after you, Cecil’ about coming second, something – dare I say it – very British. And if that sounds like damning a whole nation with faint praise, second is a damn sight better than we generally do in the Eurovision Song Contest.
Oh, and ‘Vienna’ apparently outsold both ‘Woman’ and ‘Shaddap You Face’ in the end. Arrivederci.
Russell Thompson 2016
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About the Author
Russell Thompson is a Poet, performer and archivist.