The last few Popular hits of 1985 were up and down, but for me they evoke a particularly memorable time. What most brings back the year for me in chart terms, though, is scarcely to be found on the UK number ones chart. The Eurythmics were one touchstone, although I’ve already mentioned that Australia had the other hit from that album. Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill” was another; I bought the 7”, and remember feeling slightly out of step in doing so, because it didn’t make the top five in Australia. Tears for Fears are a big gap, and there’s another band we’ll get to soon enough. I also bought and adored Simple Minds’ “Alive and Kicking”, which no doubt is too late in their discography to be cool, but sod that. (Hey, my favourite album of theirs is Real Life, so what do I know.) And although they never bothered the top ten, Killing Joke’s “Love Like Blood” and Night Time were huge for me that year, thanks to a mate at matric who put me onto them. He also introduced me to the charms of Who’s Next and Quadrophenia, so I owe him double; thanks, Sim.

Whether or not it was the worst year for number ones, 1985 claims one record: it was the first year that the UK charts had eight number ones that also reached the top of the Australian charts, beating 1984’s previous peak of seven. (The Kent Report also shows there were seven in common in 1965 and 1967, but his 1960s charts were retrospective constructions based on state-by-state charts; there were no official national Australian charts in the ’60s.) The 1985 singles in question were Foreigner, USA for Africa, Madonna, UB40 & Hynde, Bowie & Jagger, Jennifer Rush, Feargal Sharkey, and Whitney Houston. I bought precisely none of them, although I did buy one Australian chart-topper (Midnight Oil’s Species Deceases EP).

There was a dramatic tailing off of number-ones-in-common the next year, although in top 5 or 10 terms the two charts still had plenty in common for the next few years. That peak of eight didn’t occur again until 2004, but out of 31 number ones versus 19. In terms of overall proportions 1984’s 7/14 is hard to beat, but it’s safe to say that 1985 is one of the years when the UK and Australian number ones were most strongly aligned. There haven’t been another 24 months like 1984-85 in the two and a half decades since.

Wham!, “I’m Your Man”, 30 November 1985

Having been a huge Wham! fan at 15 I was hardly aware of this at 17-going-on-18, but not because I’d stopped paying attention to the charts (which I hadn’t): when this went to number one in the UK, I was preoccupied with end-of-year exams and the impending trip of a lifetime. Between “I’m Your Man” reaching the top in the UK and being displaced, my family flew from Australia to Japan and then on to London for a Grand Tour of Britain and Europe in classic Antipodean style. In Australia, ten years’ continuous employment entitles you to three months of paid “long service” leave on top of your regular annual leave; it’s mostly only public servants and academics who can rack up that length of service, but that was my parents, so off we went, swapping our long hot summer for the Northern winter of 1985-86. We landed at Heathrow on the last day that this was number one, so I managed to miss it pretty much completely; in Australia it peaked at number three a couple of weeks later, while we were over here.

I had a look at my few 35mm photos of that first day in Britain. From the blue of the gloom I expect they were taken around 3.30, just as it was starting to get dark, but that whole day felt impossibly gloomy; Japan’s winter days had been crisp and clear, and the view from Anchorage airport enroute had been of bright white snow, so the contrast wasn’t just with summer back home. It felt like someone had emptied a giant hoover on Piccadilly Circus. No wonder blowing your nose turned a handkerchief black.

Compared with that Dickensian December welcome, this song sounds like the early summer we’d left behind. But that was the appeal of Wham!’s Fauxtown hits: either mirroring the sunshine outside the door or promising an escape to it. As late Wham! hits go this sounds a little too rote, but the chorus and groove are catchy, and at least the Motown stylings avoid the worst of 1985 production. If I’d been here when it was here or there when it was there I might like it more, but as I was there when it was here and here when it was there, I’ll give it five.

Whitney Houston, “Saving All My Love For You”, 14 December 1985

The arrival of Whitney Houston in these charts feels every bit as significant as Madonna’s, with the roster of female pop legends of the ’80s almost complete. That doesn’t mean I am or was a particular fan—her later hits were too over-the-top for me—but revisiting this has been an eye-opener. I never really noticed that it was an adultery song, which tells me that I never really paid attention to the lyrics, or at least to that crucial first verse, and never saw the video. Easy enough to explain the latter: when this was hitting big in Britain, my family and I were driving around the Cotswolds and Lincolnshire, staying in B&B rooms without TVs in them (I can only remember a couple of B&Bs in all of that trip where we did get a TV in our room, and one of those was on a 50p meter), so to me this is a radio hit. Maybe it’s fortunate that I didn’t notice the adultery theme, for the sake of those long family car journeys and my teenage embarrassment levels.

Houston’s pipes certainly sweep away the competition, but does her voice alone make this a good song? Those horrible ’80s keyboards threaten to condemn it to the schlock category to which Christgau and others consigned her. But Houston’s performance is pitched pretty much perfectly, and the song is really only undermined by that keyboard sound; if it weren’t I could see my middle-aged self loving this unreservedly.

I keep wanting to back off from 7’s or 8’s when I have no desire to own the song, but for me this has a definite something that’s missing in many of my 6’s, and I was prepared to overlook the ’80s production of “Careless Whisper”, so I’ll call it 7.

Number one in Australia for two weeks, by the way, in February 1986, just before Feargal Sharkey and just after Starship’s “We Built This City”.

Shakin’ Stevens, “Merry Christmas Everyone”, 28 December 1985

Sufjan missed a trick in not covering this (“Merry Christmas, Workers of The Rock River Valley Region!”). Apparently it was held back from release in 1984 so as not to compete with Band Aid. If only his record company had been more reckless, Popular could have been spared it...

A certain someone in my life has a great fondness for Christmas music, and over the years I’ve developed it too, half-goofy and half-genuine, depending which album or performance we’re talking about. CDs I would once have passed by without a glance, by no-name performers on awful bargain-bin labels, are among our most treasured: ’70s disco produced some gems, as did ’90s Euro-disco, but the best are from the ’50s and ’60s, repackaged as lounge compilations in the ’90s, with performers like Lou Rawls, Dean Martin and Julie London—here’s a handy Shakey antidote. And if crooners don’t float your sleigh, you can even find the familiar standards performed on kazoos and powertools. Most of these we picked up in Australia, the US, or via import from in the 1990s.

The UK Christmas album market is a very different affair: half Cambridge choirs, half compilations of dreary ’70s and ’80s Christmas pop, and half of that remixed into 70 minutes of musical sage-and-onion by Jive Bunny. We own next to none of those CDs, but you sure do hear enough of them every December, Wonderful Christmastiming you to tears every time you go shopping.

All of which makes it even more amazing that to the best of my memory I had never heard this before today. Or else I’ve forgotten it immediately every time I’ve heard it. That would make sense, actually, as only a few hours after watching the video I’m struggling to remember how it went.

In the same way that I heard Whitney on my family’s UK travels that December, I must have heard this, but it honestly doesn’t register. My memory of that Christmas is of a B&B in York where our “host” was almost resentful of our custom: “Australians! Typical,” she sniffed, as if we had come all the way from the colonies just to annoy her. Merry Christmas everyone.

I never thought much of Shakey as a kid and don’t give him much thought now, although I’ll concede that his first two UK number ones had their charms (they were reasonable hits in Oz too). But it’s flabbergasting that he notched up four: more than Adam Ant, Madness, and plenty of other worthier contemporaries. Maybe they should all have tried their hand at a bland Christmas song with cheesy Nordic video. Hey, imagine a 1981 Adam Ant Christmas single! Saaaaanta deliver / Your presents or your life...

I’d give that a lot more than 2, which is all I’d give this.

Later comments prompted some musings on the different Christmas music markets...

It’s no surprise that the southern hemisphere countries don’t make as big a deal of Christmas music; Christmas has a different feel there, and everyone’s getting into a summer-music mood by then, stuff that plays well on the car stereo while you’re out and about—not sleigh bells and choirs. In Britain, people stay indoors in December, because it’s dark by four o’clock, so indoor pursuits like listening to music and watching Christmas telly are much bigger. Christmas day in Oz means taking your new bike out for a spin in the sunshine; here it means staying in and watching every Bond film ever made.

But that’s only part of it. Plenty of the US has a wintry Christmas too (although not as dark as here; more snow, more daylight hours), so they’re right into Christmas music as well; but they produced tons of really good stuff in the ’50s, which has filled that traditional role ever since. New Christmas songs in America are like saplings in an old forest, struggling to find the sun in the shadow of giants.

Britain didn’t seem to produce as many big Christmas singles in the 1950s and ’60s, so they had to wait for Slade et al to pick up the pop baton. There was a rush of songs for a decade, and then it tailed off for similar reasons: a set of standards had become established, and new songs had a hard time competing. The Darkness managed it by evoking those ’70s hits, which was a canny move, because the Christmas pop sound in Britain is the sound of the ’70s, from Slade through to this tail-end throwback of Shakey’s. (Notable exception: Cliff in the 1990s, who was himself by then a throwback.)

This is my theory, which is mine, etc.

I almost forgot the one other thing I was going to note about this song, which is its significance in terms of my autobiographical tale of travelling around the UK at the time. Shakey hit number one the very day that my family and I were wandering up and down the Royal Mile in Edinburgh—the only time I visited the city before upping sticks and moving here in 2001 (although I also visited the west of Scotland in 1992). We had plans to go further north, but the weather turned miserable after that; after spending a night in a small town near Stirling, we bypassed Glasgow and skated down the motorway to the Lake District, inching along the black ice past lorries that had slid off the road.

And to end this particular slice of memoir, the first number one of 1986...

Pet Shop Boys, “West End Girls”, 11 January 1986

More than any other song, this captures the London I met in the winter of 1985-86, a city that captivated me then and still feels like an old friend when I visit it today. Australians have had a close relationship with it, at least if they’re my age. Not only are Cockney accents closest to ours, but we grew up knowing almost as much about London as any of our own cities, thanks to the ubiquitious presence of BBC and Thames productions on 1970s Australian television. Its street-names had a Monopoly-board resonance, and its landmarks were as familiar as the Sydney Opera House. The same couldn’t be said of Birmingham, Manchester or Liverpool.

There I was in London, exploring its wonders—not just record stores, but a Megastore! and affiliated with my favourite label, at that—and this song was everywhere, filtering softly but insistently through speakers in shops and taxis. I could scarcely imagine a better soundtrack. The Pet Shop Boys had taken the sounds of the moment and made them timeless; it’s remarkable how little this has dated, given the potential of some of its elements to do so. They captured the dark of those long London nights, but gave it the warmth of the long black overcoat that you shed at the door of the nightclub. “West End Girls” is an invitation indoors, an invitation to sample the mysteries of this endlessly surprising place, where every space has been overwritten a hundred times by history and is still being inscribed by new generations of West End girls and East End boys, casting off class and the past to come together for just this night to make something mesmerizing. 9.

Oxford Circus, London, 13 December 1985

Number five in Australia, by the way, entering the charts at the end of March. I was back home by then, so this must have been a bittersweet reminder of where I wasn’t: on holiday in Europe, rather than slogging through first-year Calculus at uni.

9 November 2009 · Music