How To Have 1000 Number Ones - The Easy Way

Sunday, July 24, 2005

Sunny Afternoon

I took advantage of a sunny Saturday to take a leisurely stroll over to Horsforth, knowing that the fickle British summer might not provide another equally pleasant opportunity. My chosen route took me first to my local supermarket, the Co-op on Butcher Hill. I visit this emporium several times each week, largely to purchase booze and fags, but had never before ventured any further up this particular road. I was delighted to discover, not 50 yards away, the St Vincent's shop, a local charity store which until this point I had been unaware of. Sadly the shop was closed (on a Saturday afternoon? What’s wrong with these people?) but I vowed to return.

I enjoyed the rest of my walk, through largely unfamiliar territory, including an unexpected road through an urban forest, and duly arrived in Horsforth. It is difficult to say with any certainty when I arrived in Horsforth. It is a vaguely defined and sprawling area, but if it has a centre then it is Town Street, which was my ultimate destination.

This was a strategic choice. Horsforth is similar to Headingley, being a relatively well-to-do suburb, though it lacks the student influence, and as usual with this type of location, there are a good number of charity shops. These are concentrated in Town Street, five of them in all, within a weak stone’s throw of one another*.

My first stop was the Cancer Research shop. In hindsight I should perhaps have taken a quick rest first, but in my eagerness I headed straight inside and proceeded to drip sweat over a large portion of the interior. Despite being almost overcome by heat I managed to locate a couple of boxes of CDs and began my hunt.

My first find was a compilation entitled, appropriately enough, ‘Sunny Afternoon – The Sound Of The 60’s Part 5’. Suppressing my rage at the butcher’s apostrophe, I investigated the track listing to calculate whether this was worth the £1.50 asking price, and decided to buy it on the strength of three Number Ones – The Kinks’ Sunny Afternoon, unsurprisingly, Joe Cocker’s definitive version of With A Little Help From My Friends and A Whiter Shade Of Pale by Procol Harum. A Whiter Shade Of Pale, the 234th Number One, is one of those records that regularly crops up on TV nostalgia programs as one of the greatest singles of all time, usually somewhere around number 10. I can’t see it myself, but it is a good record and a nice addition to the collection.

There were a few CD singles there too, including two of the most hideous monstrosities known to man – the Dunblane record Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door/Throw These Guns Away and Cliff Richard’s Millennium Prayer. Both were released in aid of various children’s charities, but hearing either of them makes me want to punch people indiscriminately, so I’m not convinced they’ve really done the children any favours.

I also found the 725th Number One, Blur’s Country House, winner of one of the most famously hyped chart battles when it beat Oasis’s ‘Roll With It’ to the top spot in 1995. Unfortunately the disc here was the second part of one of those irritating 2-CD sets, and contained only a live version of the song (and a rather poor one at that), but I judged it better than nothing and snapped it up.

In conversation with the shop’s proprietor I happened to mention, partly by way of apology for my excessive perspiration, my summer stroll. I was greeted with a reaction somewhere between horror and amazement at this feat of endurance. The walk had only taken 45 minutes or so, and I wasn’t exactly hurrying, so I hadn’t really considered it a particularly taxing trek, even in this heat. I’m sure I must be the only person left in Britain who walks anywhere at all these days.

Having exhausted my cash reserves I stopped off at a nearby cash machine, which proceeded to swallow my bank card for no apparent reason. Luckily I have a second bank account and therefore another card, otherwise I would have been forced to abandon the Horsforth expedition when it had barely begun. Just to be on the safe side, I made my second attempt at withdrawal from a different machine, which thankfully behaved as it ought to. On my return I noticed with a little irritation that a customer at the original machine had managed to perform their transaction without any difficulty, but with cash in my pocket I was at least able to proceed.

The remaining shops were less productive than the first, but I did manage to accrue a collection of 3 Westlife CD singles (Queen Of My Heart, I Have A Dream/Seasons In The Sun and If I Let You Go), two of which also included an invitation to subscribe to the Westlife mailing list. I declined this kind offer.

I also found a 7” of Robin Beck’s First Time, one of two Number One singles stemming from Coca-Cola adverts**, and a copy of the 421st chart-topper, Matchstalk Men & Matchstalk Cats & Dogs (Lowry’s Song) by one-hit wonders Brian & Michael (Burke & Jerk). There was no picture sleeve, and on closer inspection I discovered that the previous owner had ingeniously crafted a makeshift sleeve out of wallpaper. This was, sadly, a rather unpleasant floral design rather than a Lowry-style industrial vignette, but nevertheless an admirable effort.

As well as charity shops, Town Street is also blessed with a number of pubs in which the dedicated record-collector can wind down following a gruelling bargain-hunt. I eventually retired to a table outside the King’s Arms for a cooling pint and a quick inspection of my acquisitions in the fading sun. I reflected that this was the first time I had introduced a celebratory drink into one of my Number One shopping trips, and as I prepared myself for another marathon hike back across North Leeds I made a promise to myself to do this more often.

* I didn’t test this theory, as I didn’t want to cause injury to pedestrians or shop-fronts, and besides I couldn’t find a stone.
** The other is probably more famous, so I won’t need to tell you what it is.

Sunday, July 17, 2005

Too Much

Since there is a branch of Oxfam specialising in records just 20 minutes walk from my home, it may have been sensible to make this my first port of call. Until recently, however, I have shied away from this potential mecca.

The reason for this was fear. My mind was filled with images of the shop’s chaotic interior, littered with boxes of records all over the floor and, occasionally, shelves, in no apparent order, spreading out as far as the eye could see. While this disorder made the shop a heavenly place for aimless browsing, it was virtually impossible to find anything specific in less than eight hours, so the thought of attempting to locate Number One singles was intimidating.

Eventually I plucked up the courage to enter, even without the aid of a stiff drink and a shot of valium, and was surprised to come across a scene far removed from that which I remembered. It transpired that since my last visit, someone had taken it upon themselves to introduce some kind of order, possibly because of health and safety regulations, and it was now possible to cross the shop floor without tripping over a stack of Mantovani LPs. There were even some concessions to standard retail practice, such as filing CDs and 12”s in separate sections. In fact the interior now almost resembled a record shop rather than a museum display depicting the destruction of Hiroshima.

The unknown maverick responsible for this new regime had apparently resisted the temptations of alphabetical ordering, and while there were now shelves dedicated solely to 7” singles, there were several of these scattered randomly throughout the store. Nonetheless I judged that it would now be possible to take a methodical approach to hunting through the treasure, though I anticipated that several visits would be required before being satisfied that I had explored every appropriate corner.

For my first foray I decided on a cautious approach, and restricted myself to one of the two selections of CD singles, and left with what appeared to be 14 Number One singles. It was later revealed that the case advertising Craig David’s Fill Me In was actually a cunning disguise for a compilation entitled ‘When A Man Loves A Woman’, but as this turned out to contain a healthy selection of Number Ones, I was not disappointed.

The best of these was You’re The First, The Last, My Everything, the only Number One by the recently deceased Walrus of Love, Barry White, a great record which always reminds me of my friend Ed, as it is one of his favourites. Another classic is the 537th chart-topper, George Michael’s Careless Whisper, but I can find little to say in the favour of Without You by Nilsson, except that it’s not that bad until he starts shouting at the top of his voice, and that it’s not quite as awful as the cover version that reached the top in 1994*.

Of the undisguised CDs, the best is the fantastic Sound Of The Underground by Girls Aloud, one of the few decent records to spring from the recent spate of TV talent contests. Gangsta’s Paradise by Coolio featuring LV is also well worth owning, which is why I bought it when it was released. Sadly this was another burglary victim, but it is now restored to its rightful place in my collection.

Prince made life difficult for anyone writing about Number Ones when he had his only chart-topper, the 705th, in 1994. This was during the period when he had disowned his name and insisted on being credited as a rather peculiar symbol, making it impossible for me to accurately tell you the name of the artist behind The Most Beautiful Girl In The World via the medium of text. This also presented a problem for the music press, so at the time he was variously known as Symbol, The Artist Formerly Known As Prince and That Purple Dwarf Twat. Perhaps the most appropriate description now would be The Artist Formerly And Subsequently Known As Prince, since he has now reclaimed the title. Whatever the credit, this is one of his finest records and merits its place in the role of honour.

The same cannot be said of R. Kelly’s I Believe I Can Fly. When it became the 764th Number One in 1997 most of us with functioning ears hoped that he would be testing his theory from the top of a very tall building**. In retrospect it is perhaps a good thing that he didn’t – since untimely deaths in the world of pop generally lead to increased record sales, his demise would certainly have resulted in this horrible record holding the top spot for more than the 3 weeks it managed. I am assuming, of course, that he was wrong about being able to fly, which I think is a safe bet.

All things considered I was very satisfied with my trip to Oxfam Music, which brought the total to 395 Number Ones. There may not be the hidden nooks and crannies that there once were, but most of the shop is still to be explored and when I get my hands on those 7” singles I’m sure it will be very profitable.

* And of course you know who was responsible for that.
** Thank you to whoever it was that reminded me of this joke earlier today, and apologies for forgetting who you were. You’ll have to namecheck yourself.

Sunday, July 10, 2005

Are Friends Electric?

My old and dear friends Anthony and Lindsay have cemented their reputation by bolstering my collection to the tune of 13 Number Ones. Ant, who is himself an anal record boy (specialist subject: jangly indie pop) and probably secretly wishes he’d had this idea before I did, discovered in his record collection an old compilation album entitled ’20 Number 1’s’ (their misplaced apostrophe, not mine), and kindly donated it to the cause.

It contains a selection of chart-toppers predominantly from the 1960s, including 11 which I had yet to locate. On playing the record I was disheartened to discover that the vinyl seemed to be in rather poor condition, and wouldn’t play for more than a couple of minutes without skipping, but with a little care and attention (vigorous rubbing, for the most part) I was able to correct the problem areas.

The most stubborn blemish, which appeared for some time to be irreparable, was especially frustrating as it was in the middle of the best track, the marvellous In The Year 2525 (Exordium and Terminus) by Zager & Evans, the 275th Number One from 1969. I am ashamed to have never previously owned this record, as it is surely one of the best ever chart-toppers. I had not heard it for many years, but it remained fresh in my mind, perhaps due to the unforgettable opening lines: "In the year 2525, if man is still alive". As well as being one of the greatest Number Ones, it is also one of the strangest and perhaps the most sinister, being a tale of a dystopic future and ultimate armageddon.

Another unforgettable opening belongs to the 116th Number One, Blue Moon by the Marcels, which begins, brilliantly, "Bom momma bom, ma bom ba bom bom, ba ba bom ba ba bom, ba dang a dang dang, ba ding a dong ding blue moon". The Elvis version of this song is good, but I can’t help but consider that it would have been improved if only he’d thought of that.

The 99th Number One was Lonnie Donegan’s My Old Man’s A Dustman (Ballad Of A Refuse Disposal Officer), which contains some of the worst jokes ever committed to vinyl. As evidence I will submit just one example:

"My dustbin’s full of lilies".
"Well, throw ‘em away then".
"I can’t, Lily’s wearing ‘em!".

Judging by the audience reaction in this live recording, this was the height of hilarity in 1960, but in 2005 it inspires in me only bemusement and a blank stare.

While the LP focuses on the 60s, it also includes Eddie Fisher’s Outside Of Heaven, which dates back to 1953. When it reached the top of the UK charts in January of that year, it became only the 4th record ever to do so. Sadly there is little else of note in this song.

Anthony’s wife Lindsay made a contribution of her own, digging out a couple of old 7”s. The Joker by the Steve Miller Band is unfortunately the original 1973 single rather than the 1990 re-release which reached Number One on the back of an appearance in a Levi’s advert, having outsold its nearest rival by just 8 copies*, but is nevertheless a useful addition.

George Michael’s A Different Corner, on the other hand, is the real deal, complete with picture sleeve. Before playing the record, I was struggling to recall it, and having listened I became convinced that this is in fact yet another Number One which has always eluded my ears. But this record spent 3 weeks at the top in 1986, when I was 10 years old and a regular viewer of 'Top Of The Pops' and other music programmes, so how can it be possible that I have never heard it? It was preceded by Living Doll by Cliff Richard & The Young Ones, and deposed by Falco’s Rock Me Amadeus, both of which are as familiar to me as any among the thousand, but it seems that George’s effort passed me by.

This confuses and surprises me. It’s not a particularly memorable record, admittedly, and perhaps it has simply been forgotten, but even so, this seems strange. Ironically, the back sleeve proclaims that "This record is dedicated to a memory". Obviously not mine.

* The record it beat was one of the great Number 2s – know what it was?

Sunday, July 03, 2005

Down Under

Another day, another charity shop. This time my continuing exploration of Leeds city centre took me to the British Heart Foundation store, where I was disappointed to find only a handful of 7” singles. On closer investigation, however, it turned out that most of these were Number Ones.

Something’s Gotten Hold Of My Heart by Marc Almond featuring special guest Gene Pitney was the odd one out, because as far as I’m aware neither Mr Almond nor Mr Pitney have ever appeared in ‘Neighbours’. The others were the first two chart-toppers by Kylie Minogue, I Should Be So Lucky and Hand On Your Heart, Jason Donovan’s debut Too Many Broken Hearts, and the duet between the two, Especially For You. I can only assume that these were donated by a former ‘Neighbours’ fanatic in an attempt to restore some kind of dignity to their life.

The selection of CD singles was also slim, but did provide a Number One in the form of the 1997 Children in Need version of Perfect Day, the 777th Number One, credited simply to Various Artists. Presumably no-one could be bothered to come up with any kind of band name, but the credit, though lazy, is appropriate. You can’t get much more various than this – Boyzone and Bono rub shoulders with rather more obscure artists such as Robert Cray and Burning Spear, all singing individual lines of the song. There are also appearances from instrumentalists including Courtney Pine and the Brodsky Quartet, and the song’s writer Lou Reed pops up to perform the first and last lines.

It was an interesting concept, but it’s a shame they didn’t pick a better song to perform, and we could have done without some of the more histrionic contributions from, among others, Tom Jones and Heather Small. They could learn a lot from the understated delivery of Emmylou Harris, who steals the show as far as I’m concerned. This is quite an impressive feat when you consider that she has only 4 seconds out of 223 in which to do it.

I also picked up a few compilation albums originally released as newspaper covermount CDs. As usual with such discs the selection is varied, and in this particular haul there is little to excite me. There are a couple of gems though, namely Feels Like I’m In Love by Kelly Marie (if you want a record that illustrates the term ‘classic pop single’, look no further), and Olive’s You’re Not Alone, one of the most surprising records to ever reach the top spot. I have a suspicion that the Olive track presented here is not the single mix, perhaps an album version, but hopefully at some point I will pick up the original single and be able to check this theory.

Another notable inclusion is Rosemary Clooney’s Mambo Italiano*, the 28th Number One, and this therefore becomes the oldest in the collection, which now consists of 369 Number Ones. Of these, 164 are the original releases. Where to next?

* One of three Number Ones with ‘Mambo’ in the title, but you probably already knew that.