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Second best? The 20 greatest UK #2 singles ~ Side B

March 7, 2013

elvis_presley_1968

Guitar man: Elvis rarely put a foot wrong when it came to churning out chart hits, yet two of them made it no higher than #2 over here – what were they and just what beat them…?

So, following a week’s interval after the sampling and digesting of ‘Side A’ of this special two-part pop/rock post, it’s time to flip over the record and take in ‘Side B’. Oh yes.

Because, peeps, here they verily are – the top 10 greatest #2’s in UK chart history. The best dectet of singles that almost made it all the way to chart supremacy, only – usually unjustly – to miss out on top spot by the merest of whiskers. And, in most cases, the reason why this happened is intriguing, surprising, amusing and in some cases downright bizarre. What all 10 of the singles have in common, though, is they’re brilliant – they’d all be #1’s in my record collection. Would they be in yours…?

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CLICK on the song titles to hear them…

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10. Everybody Wants To Rule The World ~ Tears For Fears

Date reached #2: April 20 1985 (2 weeks)

Kept off the top by: We Are The World ~ USA For Africa

The chanson: The Tearsters’ absolutely infectious shuffle beat-driven tune that happily and oh-so melodically bounces through the ear and into one’s bonce – so much so that by just 1994, it had achieved at least two million US radio plays.

The cachet: With its hours-of-studio-honed synth work, this utterly cracking song is inescapably ’80s in every way. Like Spandau Ballet’s Gold (featured in this post’s ‘Side A’ companion piece), its ’80s luscious pop-ness springs to mind sunshiny days on speedboats and expensive nights out in garish wine bars, yet a listen to (and a consideration of) its – admittedly – ambiguous lyrics’ll suggest a cynical take on the status quo; it’s, in fact, a critique of humanity’s appetite for power and the war-mongery that comes with it. Either way, Everybody was lapped up by both the public (it hit top spot in the US, if not quite over here) and the critics (it won its year’s Brit Award for Best Single and was nominated for the Mercury Music Prize; in a typical fit of immodesty, its primary songwriter Roland Orzabal opined it should have won that prize over the victor, Paul Hardcastle’s 19, because few of the latter’s lyrics were actually original).

The challenger: The get-out clause for We Are The World languishing in the #1 spot ahead of the greatness that is Everybody is the fact, of course, it raised a hell of a lot of dosh for a damn good cause. The charge against it, though, is it’s undiluted saccharine pop pap. Inspired by Band Aid’s Do They Know It’s Christmas? released just six months earlier, the Harry Belafonte-driven USA For Africa project and this single it spawned is similarly naff, for sure, but being its as American as apple pie it lacks the likeable, very knowing naffness of Band Aid. Plus, Do They Know It’s Christmas? is actually an enduring tune. Still, it did make $11m – and the wider project around $45m – which ain’t to be sniffed at.

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9. In The Ghetto ~ Elvis Presley

Date reached #2: July 5 1969 (3 weeks)

Kept off the top by: Something In The Air ~ Thunderclap Newman

The chanson: The Pelvis’s urban narrative with a conscience, a slow-burner of a classic dripping with atmosphere and meaning.

The cachet: This was the first Top 10 hit in his homeland for three years for Elvis (making it to #3) and went one better here; and rightly so. A departure for the undisputed King of Rock and Roll for sure, it’s a stripped-back, langurous, disciplined but dilligent ditty that owes all its effect and success to its lyrical power and the power of its singer’s delivery. About the generational poverty trap in which too many find themselves in modern towns and cities (specifically Chicago), it’s a tune Elvis wasn’t keen on recording at first owing to its social message, but sadly still resonates all too well throughout the world of today.

The challenger: One of Elvis’s most unique, most enduring and thus most important hits In The Ghetto may have been, but in retrospect it’s pretty obvious it was never going to get past the awesomely monikered Thunderclap Newman’s one-hit-wonder-and-a-half Something In The Air. An epic ‘flower-power’-can-change-the-world effort that’s driven by genius chord changes and performed by a group The Who’s Pete Townshend assembled around the latter band’s roadie John ‘Speedy’ Keen (whom wrote the song), it became – and has remained – something of a phenomenon with the public at large, featuring in everything from the movie du jour Easy Rider (1969) to those irritating Noughties Talk Talk mobile phone network TV ads.

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8. My Generation ~ The Who

Date reached #2: November 27 1965 (2 weeks)

Kept off the top by:  The Carnival Is Over ~ The Seekers

The chanson: The Mod-tastic testament of youthful rebellion, whose sentiments and toe-tapping brilliance has far exceeded the era in which it was created and at first seemed to define.

The cachet: Such a classic of mid-’60s youth culture it maybe could be described as the anthem of the Mod movement, My Generation is surely The Who’s signature tune and, as noted above, the song that best summises rebel youth of every generation. And that’s frankly because it’s so terrific. Employing an irresistible hard, driving bass line (à la The Kinks’ All Day And All Of The Night of the year before), a genius R&B-inspired call-and-respond lyrical style and an exploding chorus prefixed by Roger Daltrey’s serendipitous stuttering (‘fffff-fade away’), this is a rock standard that’s always been impossible to resist, whether consumed back in the day, during the late ’70s/ early ’80s Mod revival or in every other TV trail and/ or ad of today.

The challenger: How the hell did My Generation not get to #1? Because The Seekers’ The Carnival Is Over did instead. No, I can’t fathom how that happened either. But it did. In this travesty-of-pop-history’s defence, mind, the top comment on its youtube link as I compose this very sentence comes from one marcel911, whom writes: “Why only 600,000 or so views [for The Carnival Is Over]? Gangnam Style has millions. Just shows what crap people will listen to these days.” You can’t argue with that, at least.

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7. Magical Mystery Tour (EP) ~ The Beatles

Date reached #2: January 6 1968 (2 weeks)

Kept off the top by: Hello, Goodbye ~ The Beatles

The chanson: The double-disc ‘single’ that featured six of the songs written for the Magical Mystery Tour movie (1967).

The cachet: A sort of shortened version of the Magical Mystery Tour album (1967), itself an accompaniment to the film first shown on the Beeb on Boxing Day that year which left the nation shrugging, the EP boasted half a dozen real doozies: the classic title tune itself; the music-hall inspired Your Mother Should Know; the iconic psychedelia of I Am The Walrus; the wistful The Fool On The Hill; the playful instrumental Flying and the druggy mantra of Blue Jay Way. If anyone unleashed the likes of this on the single charts today it’d surely cause an utter sensation.

The challenger: Despite the last statement, the Magical Mystery Tour EP didn’t, of course, reach the summit of charts. What did? That’d be another song from the Magical Mystery Tour film then. Yes, really. Utterly uniquely, Macca’s chipper, chorus-dominated and unforgettable Hello, Goodbye not only kept off top spot these six other tunes from the same source, but was also there for six weeks, ensuring it was 1967’s Christmas #1. Not that John Lennon was impressed, mind, his I Am The Walrus was its ‘B-Side’, which understandably he much preferred. To be fair, posterity probably has too, but hey.

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6. Suspicious Minds ~ Elvis Presley

Date reached #2: January 17 1970 (1 week)

Kept off the top by: Two Little Boys ~ Rolf Harris

The chanson: The tune that makes The King, er, The King? You better believe it, kids.

The cachet: There’s a theory that goes if you don’t like Suspicious Minds you’re not a human being. Well, all right, it’s not a theory; I’ve just just made it up. But it should be one because it holds water, don’t doubt it. I’m not saying Suspicious Minds is the greatest song Elvis ever recorded (I’m nothing like a Presley aficionado, so wouldn’t dream of going there), but it has to be surely his most accessible, coolest and most enjoyed effort of all-time. A swaggering, sweltering belter of a classic, it was effectively the song that marked his late ’60s/ into the ’70s jumpsuit-fuelled comeback following the Vegas-set televised ’68 Comeback Special (1968). It was his 17th and last #1 in the States, but ridiculously failed to scale the summit of the charts over here. Despite all its arm-pumping awesomeness.

The challenger: We’re an eccentric lot us Brits. Only we could look Suspicious Minds full in the face and then plump instead for an Australian cartoonist-cum-veterinary-reality-TV-presenter’s recording of an obscure Antipodean folk song – and make it ’69’s Christmas #1 in the process. Fair dues, Two Little Boys is a decent ditty with, in its quaint way, a rather affecting ‘message’, but six whole weeks at the top of the charts? Talk about a ’60s hangover.

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5. Vienna ~ Ultravox

Date reached #2: February 14 1981 (4 weeks)

Kept off the top by: Woman ~ John Lennon/ Shaddap You Face ~ The Joe Dolce Orchestra

The chanson: ‘A man in the dark in a picture frame/ So mystic and soulful…’ Yes, it is – and could only be – the glorious marriage of New Wave synthy, lyrical b*llocks with epic pop brilliance and gloriousness that is the early ’80s masterpiece Vienna.

The cachet: Pompous and overblown with its grand piano and viola and somewhat inspired by the classic Vienna-set Brit flick The Third Man (1949), Ultravox’s Vienna is four minutes and 40 seconds of studio-honed musical mastery from the man who would later (for what it’s worth) mastermind Do They Know It’s Christmas?, the magisterially monickered Scot Midge Ure. Rightly, it scooped the Brit Award for Best Single of its year, became somewhat immortalised in the ’80s-set time travel drama Ashes To Ashes (2008-10) and was the UK’s fifth biggest selling song of 1981. But it did get to #1? Did it eccers like.

The challengers: Among connoisseurs of UK #2’s (don’t worry, there aren’t many), Vienna is legendary for being kept off the top spot for four successive weeks. A rather amazing occurrence when you think about it, given it took two separate singles to prevent it from getting to the summit. First up was an extremely worthy opponent, the recently, tragically deceased John Lennon’s warm, marvellous ballad Woman, but second – inexplicably for three of those four weeks – was Joe Dolce’s crap novelty effort Shaddap You Face. We Brits are not only eccentric; we also have a hell of a sense of humour. A very bad one at times.

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4. Waterloo Sunset ~ The Kinks

Date reached #2: May 27 1967 (2 weeks)

Kept off the top by: Silence Is Golden ~ The Tremeloes

The chanson: The utterly iconic ode to The Big Smoke from Ray Davies’s Norf London Mods-turned-English myth-makers The Kinks.

The cachet: One of The Kinks’ best recalled and best loved efforts with its unforgettable tumbling bass riff, Waterloo Sunset was conspicuously inspired by band vocalist, songwriter and unequivocal leader Davies’s cherished moments spent standing on Waterloo Bridge taking in the impressive and clearly highly inspiring view. A love song about a man and the city he adores then, it’s maybe Swinging London’s quintessential ballad. Sha-la-lah!

The challenger: Originally the B-Side of a hit for Frankie Valli & The Four Seasons, Silence Is Golden ironically proves the opposite is true. For, thanks to Rick West’s frequently soaring falsetto, The Tremeloes turned a mild, sweet ditty into a three-week chart-topper over here and a #11 hit in the US. Considered a classic of its era, it’s a worthy chart champion, but for me Waterloo Sunset hitting top spot in its place would have made for a redder sky at night.

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3. Let It Be ~ The Beatles

Date reached #2: March 14 1970 (1 week)

Kept off the top by: Wan’drin Star ~ Lee Marvin

The chanson: The Fabs’ penultimate single and (variously) considered one of their greatest, Let It Be is Paul McCartney’s sprawling, epic ballad and the corner-piece of ‘Side A’ of the album with which it shares its name (1970).

The cachet: Instantly recognisable as soon as those piano chords open proceedings, this soaring all-Macca masterclass in song composition and delivery may have been poked at by John Lennon for its sanctimoniousness (‘Mother Mary comes to me/ Whispering words of wisdom/ Let it be’), but it most definitely found an audience with the punters at large and the majority of critics, hitting #1 in the US, Australia, Italy, Norway and Switzerland and placing 20th on Rolling Stone magazine’s 2004 list of ‘The 500 Greatest Songs of All-Time’. Globally embraced as much as any other Beatles hit might have been, yet not quite as much in Blighty – why?

The challenger: Why is the three-week chart-topper Wand’rin Star. And, yes, that’s bizarre. A breakout hit from the cinematic flop that was the Lee Marvin-starring Western musical Paint Your Wagon (1969), it’s a gentle, atmospheric tune, while Marvin’s more-warbling-than-actually-singing throughout adds it an undeniable eccentric charm. Yet this unique performance from the film star could also be said to be, well, a bit crap. Ah well, Lennon felt much the same about Let It Be. Bizarre all round then, really.

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2. Wouldn’t It Be Nice/ God Only Knows ~ The Beach Boys

Date reached #2: August 27 1966 (2 weeks)

Kept off the top by: Yellow Submarine/ Eleanor Rigby ~ The Beatles

 

The chanson: A double whammy (and then some) from the legendary Californian sand-lovin’ band – it’s only their two best songs on one Double A-Side single.

The cachet: Quite simply, this has to be one of the greatest singles ever released. After all, it does feature the two best tunes from the seminal, sensational Pet Sounds album (1966), the one-time surfer-sound-band-now-most-dynamic-pop-act-in-the-States’ deliberate answer to The Fabs’ goal-posts-moving Rubber Soul (1965). Wouldn’t It Be Nice is The Beach Boys of old grown into musical muscle men (led, of course, by the masterful maestro Brian Wilson); the soaring multiple vocals, pop-sensibility paciness and adolescent yearning is all there, sure, but now there’s an additional unadulterated artistry. To listen to it is to take a divine soak in pure pop perfection. Conversely, God Only Knows is just musical perfection itself. An utterly glorious song up there with the best popular music has ever produced (cf. the best of The Beatles; Simon & Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water), its beautiful, beautiful melody; overlapping harmonies come the end; luscious orchestral über-sound  and simple overall quality has always called to my mind what it must sound like in heaven. If heaven exists and all that.

The challenger: Ironically (or not) for Brian Wilson – whom, born just days apart from Paul McCartney, liked to see himself as an innovating rival of the latter – his group’s outstanding Double A-Side was trumped at the summit of the UK charts by another Double A-Side. By Paul McCartney’s Beatles too. And one that featured two ditties from the Revolver album (1966) no less. To be perfectly fair, though, benchmarks themselves of pop innovation Yellow Submarine (the first song to feature ‘sampling’) and Eleanor Rigby (a sombre pop song with amazing Bernard Herrman-like jolting, unnerving strings) may have been, Wouldn’t It Be Nice/ God Only Knows has to be recognised as the better single and thus deserved to be #1. But has their ever been such a dynamic, inspiring one-two at the top of Blighty’s charts before or since?

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1. Strawberry Fields Forever/ Penny Lane ~ The Beatles

Date reached #2: March 4 1967 (3 weeks)

Kept off the top by: Release Me ~ Englebert Humperdinck

The chanson: Yes, that’s right, it’s the best single the world has ever heard. And, yes, it didn’t get to #1 in the nation that can lay claim to it.

The cachet: This kind of thing is all opinion, of course (after all, some of you reading this may not even rate The Beatles much – if so, one wonders why you’re reading this blog at all really, but let’s leave that aside right now), but to my mind – like God Only KnowsStrawberry Fields Forever is one of the very greatest pop songs ever. As innovative as an X-Wing is cool, as enigmatic as John Travolta can dance and as glorious after all these years as Audrey Hepburn is, well, glorious too, it’s a by turns downbeat, by others soaring and by yet more awe-inspiring four minutes of music. The definitive chart hit as art, it’s the perfect exemplar of just pop can pull off. And, to be fair, in it’s way so is Penny Lane. A sort of psychedelic upbeat answer from Macca to Lennon’s existential angst on the first half of the single (thus combining to form the perfect Double A-Side), it’s bright, breezy and utterly infectious, yes, but brazenly brilliant too – not only does it make distinctive use of the piccolo trumpet, but also it employs a profoundly smart chord progression thanks to the the chords it pivots around (an endeavour the like of which no pop composer, nay arguably no composer outside of ‘classical music’, had ever before attempted), which results in the listener being ebulliently pulled up at critical points throughout and why the song’s such a damned satisfying experience. Both songs, named after places in Liverpool dear to their writers, were awesome, personal projects – thank goodness that Fab pair decided to share them with this.

The challenger: The one problem, if there was one, with these two tunes is that they not only came from an era when The Beatles were withdrawing from the public gaze seemingly to become ultra-cool behemoths more interested in dabbling with Class-A drugs than connecting with the average Brit at large, they also proved that this was what The Fabs were doing. There’s no doubt both songs were the products of LSD experimentation. And that, one can fairly safely assume, made Blighty a little uncomfortable. Indeed, the visual accompaniment to this incredible Double A-Side single was (in yet another significant innovation) one of the first music videos, featuring as it did Lennon and McCartney astride white stallions in a gloomy park with what seemed to be a piano borrowed from a scrapheap tied up to a tree. What the hell had happened to those lovely lads that used to be the Mop-tops? And what was this ‘challenging’ music they were now coming out with? The inevitable result was the UK, in all its barmy eccentricity, did what only it would – it didn’t send Strawberry Fields Forever/ Penny Lane to the top of the charts; it made Englebert Humperdinck’s MOR-tastic, faintly naff ballad Release Me #1 for six weeks. The late ’60s were, to paraphrase Jim Morrison, strange days, indeed.

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. Simon permalink
    March 7, 2013 10:24 pm

    Suspicious minds kept off the top by, do you think I would leave you crying…… Well there you go it says everything about the British record buying public really. As for this list as marvellous as it is, it means nothing to me…. So I’m going to shut uppa my face and listen to some quality music. Now where did I put that 5star albumn? Seriously great post as ever.

  2. Endecay permalink
    March 27, 2013 8:05 pm

    George – intriguing blog. I came across it whilst trying to make a list (prior to making a CD) of the best songs to stall at number 2 – I mean Wiki carries a list of every number one but not the # 2s.. I notice that there’s nothing beyond the 80’s but I guess that’s your particular ouvre! Means that Rolling in the Deep by Adele gets ignored. Also, I’d add a few others from my ‘research’ like Gudbuy T’Jane by Slade which I reckon’s their finest 3 minutes or Far, Far Away by the same band. Then there’s the fantastic Oliver’s Army by Elvis Costello and The Attractions…

    Anyway, I’m mainly commenting as there is a factual error in your entry for God Only Knows/Wouldn’t It Be Nice – Yellow Sub/Eleanor is from Revolver not Rubber Soul. I’m sure you can edit…

    As for the CD – I think I shall call it “Greatest Number Two’s – They’re Not Crap”

    • March 28, 2013 1:11 am

      Hi, Endecay,

      Yes, as you say, there’s certainly several competitors for such a list and, as mine’s subjective, it’s easy to find some ‘obvious’ omissions on it when one starts digging. 😉

      Thanks for pointing out the error – will indeed put it right – and good luck with putting together your CD.

      Cheers for your comment and glad you liked the post…! 🙂

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