How To Have 1000 Number Ones - The Easy Way

Sunday, September 25, 2005

Heaven Is A Place On Earth

I read in the Yorkshire Evening Post that a jumble sale (plus cake stall) was to be held at the Headingley St Columba United Reformed Church the following Saturday. I am not, you will be surprised to hear, a religious man, and usually restrict my appearances in church to the occasional wedding, but this sale provided a compelling reason to visit a house of God.

I knew little about the nature of the United Reformed Church, but I did know that it was housed in a modern building. This was enough to turn my uneducated mind to wild speculation. It became obvious to me that I was walking into a trap set by a mysterious and evil cult. Within two hours I would be brainwashed to such an extent that I would forget all about collecting Number One singles, and would instead be content to have mind-altering chemicals injected into my bloodstream with unfeasibly large needles in some kind of secret underground laboratory.

This, I reasoned, would be a bad thing, but if this was what I had to go through in order to lay my hands on a copy of Billy Don’t Be A Hero by Paper Lace, then so be it. I approached with caution.

On entering the church I was greeted by the advertised cake stall, staffed by an elderly lady who glared at me as if I had murdered her children. I certainly wasn’t going to risk buying a rock bun from this woman, so I proceeded into the main sale area, after paying a 20p admission fee. The room was small and the goods appeared to consist almost entirely of piles of ancient and foul-smelling clothing. I spied a selection of books in one corner and decided to investigate in the hope of discovering a nearby stash of records, but it was not to be. Within three minutes I had circumnavigated the hall and concluded that there was not a gram of vinyl or a hint of polycarbonate plastic in the place. I retraced my steps past the sinister cake lady and made my way out.

I was naturally disappointed to have come away empty-handed, but I did at least appear to have retained my free will. I rued the ill-spent 20p, which would most likely go towards funding the construction of a giant death ray, and made my way to the nearby Mind shop, which I had not visited for some time.

My previous visit here had been largely unfruitful (though I had picked up a couple of CD singles), so I was delighted to discover that the shop had been refurbished and restocked, with an expanded selection of old 7” singles. I eagerly dived in.

If I ever decide to collect as many copies of Do The Bartman by the Simpsons as I possibly can, I will start here. There were four, but I was satisfied with the one I already had and passed them by. I was more interested in a pair of Abba Number Ones, Knowing Me, Knowing You and one of their finest moments, The Winner Takes It All.

Angelo by Brotherhood of Man, which I had never heard before, is a blatant (if ham-fisted) attempt at an Abba soundalike, all chiming piano chords and boy/girl harmonies. I also bought their more familiar Eurovision winner, Save Your Kisses For Me, which is a marginally better record, at least until it gets to the cringeworthy pay-off revealing that the subject of the song is three years old.

There was another Eurovision champion here, Nicole’s A Little Peace, which was the 500th Number One and so represents the chronological half-way point of my quest. Its B-side ‘Thank You, Merci’ (there’s a Danke thrown in there too) illustrates how desperate Nicole must have been for Eurovision success. Speaking of Europe, I also found a copy of their The Final Countdown. This is quite possibly the least subtle Number One ever*, and the sleeve almost certainly holds some kind of world record for the amount of hair on display.

The 649th chart-topper was Bombalurina’s Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini, which is even more irritating than I had remembered (ah yeah!). It was stuck in my head for about three days after listening to it (ah yeah!), which brought me close to suicide, but I was saved by the fantastic Fame by Irene Cara. On the same subject, Gonna Make You A Star by David Essex hit the top in 1974 and is therefore the oldest record I found here.

I might, one day, try to work out how many Number Ones feature an accordion. There can’t be very many, but I have found one in Shakin’ Stevens’ Oh Julie (“Don’t kick me in the goolies”, as we used to enjoy singing). I can’t tell for sure, but there may also be one in the background of The Lion Sleeps Tonight by Tight Fit**.

Perhaps my most satisfying acquisition was the 629th chart-topper, Sealed With A Kiss by Jason Donovan. Not because it’s a good record (it isn’t), or because on the back sleeve Jason appears to be on fire (which might explain why he didn’t made it back to the top for another two years). The real cause for celebration is that I now have a complete collection of Jason’s Number Ones on 7” single, all with picture sleeves. Not only can I take pride in this achievement, but I can also rest assured that I need never suffer the indignity of buying one of his records again.

* Even less subtle than my Europe segue, amazingly.
** One of five Number Ones with a big cat in the title, quiz fans.

Sunday, September 18, 2005

Starry Eyed

The realisation was sudden, unexpected and unprovoked. I was absently reading through a few e-mails, unrelated to Number Ones, when I recalled the fact that I owned Aaliyah’s self-titled album, which includes More Than A Woman, the 917th record to reach the top, but had not yet transferred this track into the collection.

It was the second small boost I had received in the space of a week, as a few days earlier my friend and colleague Frazer had given me a copy of Olive’s You’re Not Alone on CD single, having read about the version I had found on a compilation album. I had been correct, it turned out, in thinking that the compilation track was an alternative mix, and now I had the real thing. Sadly I was still missing the CD sleeve, which, Frazer explained, had been stolen by a bungling burglar. This criminal mastermind had purloined Frazer’s entire collection of CD cases, unaware that the discs themselves were stored elsewhere. In this case at least, crime does not pay.

I hoped to add more to the collection when I had a brief search in a couple of Headingley charity shops which I hadn’t checked for a while. In the British Heart Foundation shop I found Spiller’s Groovejet (If This Ain’t Love) and a pair of Aqua singles, their fantastic debut Barbie Girl and Turn Back Time*. This selection may have been small, but at least the quality was high. This was not the case in the Arc shop, where I found the dreadful Hey Baby (Uhh, Ahh) by DJ Ötzi and B*Witched’s To You I Belong, which would be bad enough even if the CD didn’t contain ‘B*Witched’s Message To Santa’, a barrage of shrieking even more irritating than their ‘Quiz Show’.

Reading the local paper I was intrigued to hear about the Hope Pastures Barn Sale which was to be held the following Sunday and which appeared to be somewhere nearby. A little research pinpointed the location and revealed Hope Pastures to be a horse sanctuary. This didn’t sound like the kind of place where I’d be likely to find a dusty box of 78s, but I decided to take a look.

I can say with certainty that this was the smelliest place I had visited in my quest so far, as well as having the most straw, but I was at least able to find a copy of Goodbye by the Spice Girls. It is possible that I may have done better had I turned up earlier, not because the place was attracting a rush of enthusiastic record collectors, but because when I arrived there was a pony attempting to eat as much of the merchandise as possible. I was only just quick enough to rescue the Spice Girls CD from its slobbering lips, and I can only wonder how many Number Ones it may already have consumed.

I decided to head home via Headingley and try some more charity shops, but was disappointed to find all but the British Heart Foundation closed. This was especially annoying in the case of All Aboard, which displayed a notice proclaiming proudly, and wrongly, “We are open on Sundays!”. Instead I walked down the road to Hyde Park, but was let down by a poor selection in Trader Dick’s Flea Market and another locked door at Desperate Dan’s second-hand record shop. I made a mental note to visit Dan on an alternative day of the week and, frustrated, went home.

I was cheered within days when I discovered a man named Spencer Bayles selling a few records, one of which was Do The Bartman by the Simpsons. Spencer was glad to get rid of it and I was glad to take it off his hands. At the weekend I gained another novelty hit in the guise of the Firm’s Star Trekkin’, another donation from Anthony, who had been enthusiastically searching through his own collection. He had been keen to give me ‘The Birdie Song’ by the Tweets in addition, and was downcast when I informed him that this had only reached Number Two.

The following day I made it back to Headingley at a time when the shops were open. In the Martin House shop I found Can’t Fight The Moonlight by LeAnn Rimes, and thought I had also managed to get Puff Daddy’s Notorious B.I.G. tribute I’ll Be Missing You. It was not to be. It seems that in a fit of paranoia someone at this shop once decided that only CD cases should be put on display, with the discs themselves kept securely behind the counter – clearly they haven’t come across Frazer’s burglar. The assistant conducted an extensive and detailed search, during which opportunistic shoplifters could have made off with any number of more expensive items, but I’ll Be Missing You was, indeed, missing.

My luck improved at the PDSA shop. Here I found my second 78, which was, like the first, a Jimmy Young record. The Man From Laramie was new to my ears, and truly awful. I made up for this by buying a classic chart-topper in Aneka’s Japanese Boy and a personal favourite, Return Of The Mack by Mark Morrison. This, the 737th Number One, has a special place in my heart, being the song I was going to perform on ‘Stars In Their Eyes’.

This was in 1996, when Return Of The Mack was in the charts. I got as far as filling in the entry form. I hadn’t expected to be asked to select a reserve choice of artist to impersonate, and I struggled with this question for some time before plumping for Tina Turner. Other than this, the form was easy to complete. The other entry requirement was to provide a demo recording, which was a bit trickier and sounded like an awful lot of hard work.

I considered simply sending a copy of the Mark Morrison version, but I thought that was probably cheating, and I didn’t want to win the Stars In Their Eyes title only to have it annulled when my deception was discovered. I imagined the disgrace, the tabloid furore, my name forever synonymous with shame, and thought it best not to go down this route.

In the end, I never got round to making a demo, and so the viewing public missed out on the sight of a short white man impersonating Leicester’s premier R&B artist (or Tina Turner). Perhaps some day Mark will make another spectacular comeback and I will have another opportunity.

* Featured on the soundtrack of the film ‘Sliding Doors’, which indirectly provided another Number One, which was of course…oh, you know that, don’t you?

Sunday, September 11, 2005

The Tide Is High

Christian had arranged the trip, I provided the soundtrack. We were on our way to Brighton, and in honour of our destination’s reputation as the gay capital of Britain, I had compiled a CD of some of the gayest Number Ones. It wasn’t difficult to fill the disc.

After a short crawl along a particularly static part of the M25, we made a detour to Leatherhead to pick up Mike and headed off to the coast. We entered Brighton accompanied by the Communards and Don’t Leave Me This Way, followed by Kylie Minogue’s Can’t Get You Out Of My Head.

I had foolishly accepted Christian’s suggestion that a tent would provide suitable accommodation. He claimed to have reached this decision due to the apparent impossibility of booking into a hotel in Brighton for a single night, but I suspected he was simply looking for an excuse to spend money on ridiculous camping equipment. He was particularly proud of a device that claimed to be a toaster, but it looked like no toaster I had ever seen, and I had some doubt about its abilities. I was similarly dubious about the full English breakfast in a tin, but I had to admire his efforts and accept that he was well prepared.

This level of preparation had not, however, extended to booking a pitch at our chosen campsite, so when we discovered on our arrival that the site was fully booked, we were forced into a rapid change of plan. Fortunately it turned out to be extremely easy to book into a hotel in Brighton for a single night, and I was secretly relieved to have a bed under a genuine, non-canvas roof.

Having secured accommodation, our next task was to locate Dave, the reason for our visit. Dave was about to move from Brighton to Prague, for no particular reason as far as I could tell, and so we were in town to bid him farewell. Naturally this involved the traditional British sport of binge-drinking, which began almost immediately, and so the day passed into evening and then into a vague blur.

I recall dancing to 99 Red Balloons, and I believe there were nuns. I remain convinced that my leap over the metal road barrier was athletic and graceful, but I have to admit that my landing was not. None of us noticed the blood streaming down my face until a helpful taxi driver pointed it out. I quickly decided that my injury was not sufficiently serious to merit a trip to hospital – I have never been to Casualty in Brighton at two o’clock on a Sunday morning at the height of summer, but I don’t imagine it would have been a pleasant experience – and elected to return to the hotel.

Fortunately I survived the night, and the following morning brought a little fuzziness but surprisingly good health. We drove into town playing YMCA and I Will Survive at high volume with the windows down. This attracted a few curious glances, but for the most part the people of Brighton must be used to this kind of behaviour. We had breakfast (fresh rather than tinned) in a pleasant café and considered our strategy for the rest of the morning.

Inevitably I suggested that we should scour Brighton in search of Number One singles. I had, of course, planned such a move as soon as our trip had been announced, but this was the first time I had mentioned it to my companions. Gratifyingly, they agreed to my suggestion, though I generously allowed them to visit some additional shops of their own choosing.

Having little knowledge of Brighton’s retail industry, we wandered the streets without focus. I was annoyed to discover three closed charity shops. Who knows what treasure may have been locked behind those doors? After half an hour without a sniff of a suitable shop I was becoming restless. Surely there must be, somewhere among these twisting thoroughfares, a charity shop or second-hand record store which didn’t refuse to open on a Sunday morning? Had I come all this way just to leave empty-handed?

It was Mike who made the breakthrough. I must have walked right past the TRAID store. Being unaware of the existence of this charity, the name meant nothing to me, and I paid it no attention. Seconds later I heard Mike shouting excitedly across a crowded street: "Joe! Records!"

He was right, and I was glad he was with me, as the shop held valuable gems. I was especially satisfied in picking up my first 78 rpm 10” single. This was the 34th Number One, Jimmy Young’s version of Unchained Melody. While Jimmy Young is an accomplished radio DJ, his singing talents are less impressive, and there are a couple of particularly painful high notes on this record that make it the worst of the chart-topping versions of this song.

I was also pleased to find the original 1960 7” release of Elvis Presley’s It’s Now Or Never (O Sole Mio) and another copy of December, 1963 (Oh, What A Night) by the Four Seasons, which I hoped would be an improvement on the virtually unplayable copy I had bought previously. There is clearly some kind of curse on this record, as I later discovered a large crack running across the vinyl from label to edge (or possibly the other way round, I couldn’t tell). Amazingly I was still able to play the record, but I hope to find an intact version.

Having at last found our way in, the floodgates opened, and before too long we had come across a number of potential sources. The bargain bin of CD Warehouse lived up to its name, yielding 6 chart-topping CD singles at a mere 25p apiece. These included a couple of Spice Girls hits (Too Much and Spice Up Your Life, one of their better attempts) and Dirrty by Christina Aguilera featuring Redman, including the notorious video featuring a half-dressed Xtina indulging in bare-knuckle boxing, with just a little bit of mud-wrestling thrown in for good measure. The record itself has a rather strange ending that is probably best described as an ‘ident’, similar to the production company jingles you usually get at the beginning of films. This one advertises ‘another Rockwilder production’, in case you were wondering.

The Shelter shop provided a particularly good haul, plus an assistant who turned out to be a personal friend of a man who is no stranger to the Number One spot, Sir Cliff Richard. Sadly Sir Cliff didn’t happen to pop in for a chat while I was there, and there were none of his 14 chart-toppers here*. I did find the 1991 release of Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody, Never Ever by All Saints and The Legend Of Xanadu by Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick and Tich. Three great records, as is Feel It by The Tamperer featuring Maya – one of the strangest and most threatening to ever reach the top, particularly notable for the line ‘What’s she gonna look like with a chimney on her?’.

On the other hand the 301st Number One, Middle Of The Road’s Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep, is horrible, though I found an even more unpleasant listening experience in C’est La Vie by B*Witched. Not that the A-side itself is all that bad (though the Irish jig section makes me want to burn down theme pubs), but the third track on the CD, ‘B*Witched Quiz Show’, features the Gaelic songstresses screeching their way through a series of pointless questions in a way that proves them to be the most irritating pop stars in the history of the world. I can only hope that they were as irritated themselves by the mis-spelling ‘Linsday’ on the sleeve.

Finally we visited Oxfam, where Christian found a 7” of Englandneworder’s World In Motion, the greatest ever football record. He also looked through a rack of 12” singles and discovered the 891st Number One, It Wasn’t Me by Shaggy. I hadn’t previously paid much attention to 12”s, mainly because in charity shops they are typically mixed in with albums, and I don’t have any desire to waste time flicking through hundreds of easy listening favourites. So I was glad that Christian had taken the trouble on this occasion, or I would probably have missed the Shaggy record, as well as Breathe by Blu Cantrell featuring Sean Paul.

By this stage I was exhausted and carrying as many Number Ones as I could be bothered to take back to Leeds, so we called it a day and arranged, with some difficulty, to meet up again with Dave for a coffee. I admired my new acquisitions while Dave admired my bruised and swollen head. We decided that the time had come to head back North, so we said our goodbyes and returned to the car. With another blast of YMCA and It’s A Sin, we were gone.

* That’s a hard one, isn’t it?