Staying with the eighties again this month but losing six years, December ’81 saw a handsome, super cool Spanish singer closing the year with the smoochie “Begin The Beguine (Volver A Empezar)”, his first English language hit and his debut UK chart topper. Written in 1935 by Cole Porter during a cruise aboard RMS Franconia, the song was recorded by others like Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra before Julio Iglesias got his vocal chords on it to take it to number one. Even The Who’s Pete Townsend delivered a version on his “Who Came First” album during 2006. “The song was a hit with women…. I adore, learn from and respect women. I like to flirt” the Spanish smooth talker once said, while admitting credit for the song must go to his producer, Ramon Arcusa, who did an incredible job on the actual arrangement, leaving Julio to tweak the lyrics to suit his personality. I actually looked up the meaning of ‘beguine’ because I wasn’t sure what it meant, to discover it’s a popular form of music and dance from the thirties, akin to a slow rhumba, emanating from the islands of Martinique and Guadelope. I can now sleep at night! There’s another thing I didn’t know until I did a little research – while Julio is generally considered to be Spanish, he once claimed he was Jewish on his mother’s side. Her family name was ‘de la Cueve’, which translates to ‘of the cave’, referring to Jewish families in hiding. Whatever, the bronzed and gorgeous Mr Iglesias, born in September 1943, is recognised as the world’s most commercially successful European singer. Not sure where he stands on the womaniser chart though.
Desperate to get to the top this month was “Under Pressure”. Born from a jam session involving David Bowie and Queen in the group’s Montreux recording studio during July ’81, the song delivered one of the most recognisable introductions in the history of music – “ding-ding-ding-diddle-ing-ding”, or something like that. It’s so difficult to turn into words, the hookline I’m hearing in my head, but speak the words out loud, it’ll help. Anyway, the story that’s travelled through the years has Bowie recording in a nearby studio and chanced to pop by when Queen were in session. Brian May recalled the visit in a 2008 edition of Mojo magazine, admitting it was a difficult time because there were four very precocious boys and David, who was precocious enough for them all. “David took over the song lyrically….it’s a great song but it should have been mixed differently. Freddie and David had a fierce battle over that.” In the end though, composing credits were given to both Bowie and Queen, although Freddie Mercury was the primary writer, on what is now revered as a timeless monster rock track. After waiting patiently, “Under Pressure” did later hit the pole position, marking Bowie’s third (after “Space Oddity” and “Ashes To Ashes”) and Queen’s second (following “Bohemian Rhapsody”). Over the years “Under Pressure” has been re-worked by some other brave acts but I’ve got to say, that once I hear those opening bars on the original version, my ears tingle with excitement as I pull out my air guitar.
In a decade where record companies moaned disco was doomed (huh – what did they know?) this year closed with the dynamic dance sound of the mighty Earth Wind & Fire. The melting pot of funk and disco, guitars and synthesizers that was the very heart of “Let’s Groove”, elevated the single to number three, before it became the group’s highest charting single across the world. Under the guidance of the brilliant Maurice White, who steered the guys through an incredible career, “Let’s Groove” was once described as ‘city music (where) the horn section screams like a car running a red light’. OK, fair comment. But their elaborate stage acts are pretty full on too. Lights, costumes, dancing, singing; a continuous musical adventure from the first note played. And it was this eclectic mix that graced their music through the decades, won them six Grammy awards and a host of other industry honours. Plus millions of loyal fans along the way.
Also in the top ten, Diana Ross hung on by her long red fingernails with “Why Do Fools Fall In Love”, her first single for Capitol Records, following her surprise exit from Motown where she reigned Supreme as lead singer of said group (just add an ‘s’) and as a soloist and actress. Considering the new material she was offered at the time, she – or someone from the record company – chose the Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers’ 1956 hit. Nonetheless, the ploy worked as Diana sat back to watch her version become a global hit, before collecting an armful of awards including a silver disc for British sales in excess of 250,000 copies. With Diana, our own Cliff Richard was in situ with “Daddy’s Home” preventing the rock band The Pretenders’ “I Go To Sleep” from rising further. With its late fifties’ flavour and French horn sequence, it had hit seeping through its very grooves. “The horn was one of those little embellishments that captured my attention” said Chrissie Hynde one time. It’s her sultry vocals that warmed the lyrics on this loveable track that attracted record buyers, including myself back in the day. Chrissie: “Distinctive voices in rock are trained through years of many things: frustration, fear, loneliness, anger, insecurity, narcissism, or just sheer perseverance – anything but a teacher.” The Kinks’ main man Ray Davies originally penned “I Go To Sleep” for beat group The Applejacks who recorded it first. It seems the Kinks didn’t record it although – and I’m hoping I’ve got this right – Ray’s actual demo was a bonus track on the “Kinda Kinks” album. Cupid’s arrow struck home too as Ray and Chrissie were an item during the eighties after meeting in a New York nightspot. They have a daughter Natalie born in 1983. Chrissie later married Jim Kerr, lead singer with Simple Minds and following their divorce in 1990, married and later divorced Lucho Brieva, a Colombian sculptor and artist.
Haircut One Hundred, Human League and Modern Romance rounded off the top ten but there was no time for complacency as strong competition was biting their heels from Police with “Spirits In The Material Wold”, Rod Stewart’s “Young Turks” and “Ant Rap” courtesy of Adam and the Ants. Taken as a whole, the music was a cross between post punk, new wave and high camp, with bags of make-up and some dreadful yet stylish colourful stage gear prompting music videos to be as stimulating as their music. Each told a story. It’s true to say that while this month offered a vast array of sounds, I was surprised at the lack of Christmas music. Well, to be more precise, there wasn’t any. Weird. As I’ve name-checked Rod Stewart, a little something more about him. Thirty-five million people around the world watched a live satellite transmission of his concert at The Forum, Los Angeles. This was the first broadcast of its kind since Elvis Presley’s “Aloha From Hawaii” special during 1973.
Let’s talk television or rather about one show in particular – Top Of The Pops, that iconic Thursday evening chart show. Today, viewers will notice that the BBC continue to plug away with re-runs of this programme but now with noticeable gaps, chopping out appearances by Jimmy Saville. However, one show that’s remained intact on YouTube is 1981’s Christmas Special featuring Kim Wilde, Spandau Ballet, Human League, Toyah and Godley & Crème, among others. Having had a quick look-see the show closed with a rousing singalong of “All We Need Is Love” with artists and DJs, like Simon Bates and Peter Powell, joining in the fun, albeit a little off key. Nobody minded, it was Christmas after all. Working in the forefront of the music business as I did for many years while living in London, Top Of The Pops was THE programme to aim for, particularly if we wanted to break new acts. However, the rules were so tight at one time because, the show’s producer would only consider booking charted songs. When the rules relaxed a smidge, new artists finally got a chance to show what they were made of. I’m sure a fair amount of bartering went on behind scenes between record company promotion peeps and the producer: shush, you didn’t see me write that! Just rounding off here, Top Of The Pops debuted in our living rooms in January 1964 with The Rolling Stones singing “I Wanna Be Your Man” as its first act. Dusty Springfield, The Hollies, Herman’s Hermits, Cilla Black were among those who joined them. It’s probably true to say Top Of The Pops was the world’s longest running weekly music programme, finally bowing out in 2006, having gone through several format changes and surviving an alarming amount of differing music styles. Some of it good; some of it not so.
Top Of The Pops was also the name of a series of albums issued on the Hallmark label and, if my memory serves me well, you could buy these in our much-missed Woolworths shops. Do you remember browsing around, then buying stuff, in these magnificent every day shops that managed to sell everything you needed from sweets, records, make-up, knitting needles, those fiddly-things-that-constantly-go-missing-in-the-kitchen, pairs of socks and everything in between. I digress. The “Top Of The Pops” albums contained anonymous cover versions of current hit singles by a group of unnamed session musicians and singers whose intention it was to replicate the sound of the original hits as much as possible. Elton John and Tina Charles were in that list of un-credited singers before they hit the big time. When I read this quote from Tony Rivers, one of the session singers, I had to smile – “In those days, more often than not, you had to do three songs in three hours then you were out of there. Not much chance of getting good at it!” but, he, added the studio singers and musicians did their best. Bless.
This unique series of releases spanned 1968 to 1985 when Hallmark released approximately one hundred budget albums. It was during the early seventies that the label enjoyed buoyant sales when two hit number one in the album chart. Unfortunately, the euphoria was short-lived as budget albums were disqualified from the charts because it was believed their low price gave them an unfair advantage over the real thing.
And that’s it for this month and our quick peek at music around Christmas 1981. So all that’s left for me to say –and I reckon it’s the most important message here – have a very fabulous Christmas with a Covid-safe 2022. Take every care out there and stay safe. It’s been a real pleasure being a part of the Cala Conversations family this year and I so hope you’ll stay with me in the future.