Second best? The 20 greatest UK #2 singles ~ Side A
Lighting up the charts: The Beatles may dominate this list, but if some of their greatest hits – and those of other acclaimed, heavy-hitting bands and solo artists – only reached #2, what on earth beat them to #1?
Number One. Número Uno. Nummer Ein. αριθμός ένας. It’s all about coming first, isn’t it? Being top of the pops. Indeed, it’s been that way in the music industry ever since the charts began – and in the UK that was way back in 1952. Since then, each week a new #1 has been announced (or, if a tune or artist has proved popular enough, sometimes the same #1 as the week before). But has the best song in the charts always been at #1? Well, obviously no, of course it hasn’t. In fact, sometimes, nay many times, a particular week’s #1 hasn’t been as good as that week’s #2.
But which weeks? What are those great singles that, for one reason or another and surely wrongly, rose no higher than #2 in the UK charts? And what was the tune that prevented them from hitting top spot? Moreover, did it deserve to? Well, peeps, get ready, get set and, yes, wind up that record player because here it comes – it’s the first half of George’s Journal‘s countdown of the 20 greatest pop/ rock songs that managed to reach #2 (and, rightly or wrongly, the singles that were singularly ‘more popular’ than them). Cue Bruno Brookes…
CLICK on the song titles to hear them…
20. God Save The Queen ~ The Sex Pistols
Date reached #2: June 11 1977 (1 week)
Kept off the top by: I Don’t Want To Talk About It ~ Rod Stewart
The chanson: One of the punk pioneers’ most memorable efforts from their cannily marketed Never Mind The B*llocks album (their one and only LP), it’s the pseudo-satirical protest song targeting Britain’s constitutional monarchy (a ‘fascist regime’).
The cachet: Squeezing on to the list not for its quality (frankly, it pretty much lacks any) but for its indubitably marvellous infamy, this is the track that years and years later folks still claim actually achieved the sales to hit the top spot, but was wrongly denied its place by the chart authorities in order not to rock the boat the very weekend of Her Maj’s silver jubilee in the summer of ’77. Blame The Sex Pistols’ manager Malcolm McClaren; the whole thing, like the band themselves, was a smart PR stunt.
The challenger: Actually not a terrible, if rather monotonous, effort from Rod’s pop balladry phase; Indigo Girls’ version (1994) is definitely better, mind.
19. Gold ~ Spandau Ballet
Date reached #2: August 20 1983 (2 weeks)
Kept off the top by: Give It Up ~ KC And The Sunshine Band
The chanson: The insanely-costumed East-End New Wavers’ iconic – if now clichéd – auric-monickered pop classic.
The cachet: With its rich, echoey, studio-produced sound, precious-metal themed lyrics and catch-it-if-you-can tempo, The Spandaus’ hit still seems to sit happily alongside mind’s-eye images of City yuppies quaffing Tattinger on yachts and poseurs speeding around in garishly coloured Lambourghinis. Yes, we’re talking the soundtrack of ’80s excess, folks, but, dammit, it’s still so appealing a sound all of 30 years later.
The challenger: A decent floor-filler from the fag-end of the Disco era, with its memorable and/ or annoying ‘Ne-ne-ne-ne-ne-ne-ne-now’-opening chorus, it may be, but it’s not up to the Gold standard. Ouch!
18. Golden Brown ~ The Stranglers
Date reached #2: February 13 1982 (2 weeks)
Kept off the top by: Town Called Malice ~ The Jam
The chanson: The post-punkers’ harpsichord-driven pop masterpiece whose lyrics are still just as indecipherable today as they were back when Charles and Di were (pretending to be) in newly wedded bliss.
The cachet: Proof of the fact there was a future for talented musicians beyond the cynical, one-trick-pony simplicity of punk, this charming yet eerie ballad is the result of The Stranglers looking back to the baroque, thus their genius employment of unusual (for pop at least) alternation of 6/8 and 7/8 time. Is its lyrics really about heroin? According to Stranglers drummer Jet Black, they’re about Marmite. He may not be entirely serious.
The challenger: Perhaps the public’s most easily recalled Jam hit, it’s a melodically fine, lyrically excellent standard of the era. Better than Golden Brown? Just as good as it? Hard to call that one…
17. Young Hearts Run Free ~ Candi Staton
Date reached #2: July 10 1976 (1 week)
Kept off the top by: You To Me Are Everything ~ The Real Thing
The chanson: Do you want Candi? Back in ’76 many peeps did – or, that is, they wanted this toe-tapping tune of hers, but not enough of ’em to get it to #1…
The cachet: A torch song disguised as a Disco groover, this to my mind, at least, is one of that pop era’s cast-iron classics. Moving at a fine lick, featuring a sax solo for a bridge, rising to a crescendo at the opening of every chorus and boasting Ms Staton’s belter of a performance, it makes you feel like a million dollars whenever it comes on at a nightclub – especially if you pretend it’s 1976.
The challenger: Another popular Disco classic, it’s easy to understand why this strings-backed ballad connected so well with Joe Public, it really grooves, washing over you like a svelte Barry White. Er, yes. Is it better than Candi’s effort, though? That’d be a no.
16. We Gotta Get Out Of This Place ~ The Animals
Date reached #2: August 14 1965 (1 week)
Kept off the top by: Help! ~ The Beatles
The chanson: The raw, ominous, heavy bass- and jazz organ-driven anthem of the mid-’60s that seemingly struck a chord with everyone who, well, felt they had to get out of a place.
The cachet: The most significant place that original fans of the song wanted to get out of was, of course, Vietnam, this most bodacious tune of the Geordieland-hailing Animals’ back catalogue connecting, as it did, with US troops of the era perhaps more than any other song – which, given the plethora of rock standards still associated with Vietnam, is saying something.
The challenger: The effort John Lennon knocked off when the foursome realised they needed a title song for their follow-up to pop musical movie masterpiece A Hard Day’s Night (1964), Help (the song) is urgent, anxious and pretty much perfect. Is it better than We Gotta Get Out Of This Place? Maybe, just maybe – but, hey, I may be biased.
15. Brown Sugar ~ The Rolling Stones
Date reached #2: May 15 1971 (3 weeks)
Kept off the top by: Knock Three Times ~ Tony Orlando and Dawn
The chanson: The Stones’ cast-iron classic, familiar as a staple of radio station plays ever since it was released four decades ago.
The cachet: A one-song groove armada of blues-rock, this instantly recognisable tune is almost the epitome of the Mick Taylor-featuring, early to mid-’70s ‘middle period’ of The Stones, with its dubious title, even more dubious lyrical content (interracial sex, cunninlingus, probably heroin and possibly even slave rape), it’s somehow nowadays – and seems always to have been – perfectly acceptable middle-of-the-road popular rock listening fodder. And to think they kicked up such a rumpus over Let’s Spend The Night Together in 1967…
The challenger: Catchy as hell and daft as a brush (with its own knocking-on-a-pipe sound effect) and, thus, raiser of a whimsical smile, Knock Three Times may be, but if it’s half as good as Brown Sugar, then my name’s Tony Orlando. Or Dawn.
14. Take On Me ~ a-ha
Date reached #2: October 26 1985 (3 weeks)
Kept off the top by: The Power Of Love ~ Jennifer Rush
The chanson: The falsetto-chorus-concluding, state-of-the-art pencil-drawing-video-boasting pop music masterpiece from the Norwegian trio with the name that may have been dreamed up by Alan Partridge.
The cachet: An utter iconic slice of ’80s synth pop, Take On Me is unquestionably up there with the greatest of New Wave efforts, and for a brief time, it rightfully hoisted a-ha up to the giddy heights of super-stardom alongside your Duran Durans, Culture Clubs and Simple Minds. Bizarrely, this epic floor-filler of a tune required three goes at cracking the UK charts before (aided by an instant MTV darling of a brilliant video), it did the business both here and over the pond and became one of the biggest selling singles of all time, moving a staggering seven million units worldwide. A-ha!
The challenger: Here it is, one of the largest injustices on this list, for this drivel of a power ballad prevented Take On Me hitting top spot for, yes, three whole weeks in the autumn of ’85. Uniquely, three tunes called The Power Of Love were released that year (the others being the efforts from Huey Lewis And The News and Frankie Goes To Hollywood), and this one is by far and a way the least worthy of chart success. Let alone worthy of getting to #1. And preventing a-ha’s all-time classic from doing the same. Gah-ha!
13. American Pie ~ Don McLean
Date reached #2: March 4 1972 (2 weeks)
The chanson: The eight-and-a-half minute-long, folk anthem-and-a-half from Stars-and-Stripes-thumb-palmed singer-songwriter Don McLean.
The cachet: Undeniably McLean’s magnum opus (but not his only hit; the beautifully bittersweet Vincent is also his), American Pie is a melodically memorable, but – perhaps more significantly – lyrically ambiguous and verbose epic of songwriting. Essentially about the plane crash that tragically wiped out rock ‘n’ roll legends Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and ‘The Big Bopper’ in 1959 and the effect it had on the then young and impressionable McLean, it’s utterly unforgettable, strangely intoxicating stuff. At least, it always has been for me – I’ve never forgotten any of its lines and, to this day, I’m not sure why I love the song quite as much as I do.
The challengers: A mixed bag if ever there were one. Harry Nilsson’s cover of Brit rockers Badfinger’s Without You is, of course, the definitive version of that plaintive power ballad, yet Chicory Tip’s Son Of My Father (which kept American Pie off top spot for the first of its two weeks at #2) is Glam Rock bargain bin fodder.
12. Radio Ga Ga ~ Queen
Date reached #2: February 11 1984 (2 weeks)
Kept off the top by: Relax ~ Frankie Goes To Hollywood
The chanson: The double-hand-clap-inducing anthem that is Queen’s canny paean to the wireless. If not also (supposedly) to baby-speak.
The cachet: To this blogger’s mind, the rock god quartet’s best single of the ’80s (all right, it’s actually maybe just behind their awesome Bowie collaboration Under Pressure), Radio Ga Ga was actually written by Queen’s drummer Roger Taylor – proof surely of how talented they were a band both collectively and individually. The song’s success was also aided, ironically given its subject matter, by its ace Flash Gordon (1980) meets Metropolis (1927) video – another MTV instant favourite – which helped to promote the unique fan hand-clap that accompanied it at Queen concerts and, most notably of all, during their outstanding set at Live Aid, where its performance may just have been the highlight of the whole damn thing.
The challenger: A worthy adversary for a top-of-the-charts battle, for sure, Frankie’s Relax was one of the in-transit-to-Hollywood Liverpudlians three #1’s in ’84 (the first time any artist had scored a hat-trick of chart-toppers with their first three singles since fellow Scousers Gerry and the Pacemakers in ’63) and it is, frankly, brilliant, straddling the line between naughty and nice – accompanied as it was, by another top video, whose full version was notoriously banned by the Beeb. It’s simply ’80s pop culture at its finest.
11. Downtown ~ Petula Clark
Date reached #2: December 19 1964 (3 weeks)
Kept off the top by: I Feel Fine ~ The Beatles
The chanson: Blighty’s premier songbird for more years than you’ve had hot dinners’ smooth, savvy and rich tribute to city nightlife.
The cachet: Ebullient, luscious and utterly glorious, with a very sexy sax solo come the end, Pet’s hit-and-a-half was inspired by New York City rather than Swinging London, despite its release coinciding with the ‘British Invasion’ of UK pop and rock acts in the States, where Downtown easily – and rightfully – sealed a #1 in January ’65. Intriguingly, so vast and eclectic were the musicians involved in its recording that both Jimmy Page (then a budding session guitarist) and Vic Flick, the man responsible for capturing the guitar work on the original and classic James Bond Theme (1962), were among their number.
The challenger: Yes, it’s The Fabs’ bouncy, upbeat, feedback-featuring ballad about a chap happily ensconced in a relationship with his love. How nice. Fans – of whom they had, well, kajillions in late ’64/ early ’65 – thought it very nice (and, no doubt, fab) too, as they made sure it topped the charts for five weeks, including over Crimbo and the New Year. Frankly then, Downtown was never going to topple this Beatles behemoth of a single. But did it deserve to? That’s a very good question…
Don’t fret, my blog-friendly friends, for ‘Side B’ of The 20 Greatest UK #2 Singles will be along faster than you can flip over a .45. Well, you know, more or less…