I’ve managed to miss an entire year from my Popular reposts. Although I commented here and there on a few of 1987’s UK number ones, I rated none of them highly enough at the time to buy the singles or related albums, and only the Pet Shop Boys and M/A/R/R/S inspire any music-ownership desires today. 1987 for me meant Midnight Oil’s Diesel and Dust, new albums from the Hoodoo Gurus and Spy vs Spy (two more Australian acts), Def Leppard’s Hysteria, and my ambivalent feelings towards The Joshua Tree. A long way from Popular’s year, then. But 1988 is turning out to be a little more interesting...

Kylie Minogue, “I Should Be So Lucky”, 20 February 1988

I turned twenty in 1988, an uncomfortable age for a pop or rock music fan: an age when you can no longer ignore the fact that half of your musical heroes were recording their first big singles and albums when they had as many birthdays behind them as you. And what are you doing at 20? Buying their records (or CDs for the shiny new player you bought this very year) and reviewing them for the student magazine at uni, words to be read by a handful of your peers and then forgotten, when you should be writing scholarship-winning essays and award-winning first novels. If you have even the slightest ambition to do something creative with your life, but haven’t yet figured out how to pull it off, it can be hard to contemplate those who had it all figured out and were on their way at your age—let alone those who seemingly stumbled into their success.

In 1988, Kylie was the most glaring example in the charts of My Age Group Made Good. She was only six months younger than me, yet by her 20th birthday had already had two massive hits in Australia, the second of which (i.e. this) was also massive in the UK. Yet she really did seem to be—to an Australian listener, particularly—the Girl Next Door. She sounded like our girls next door, looked like them, and seemed as unlikely a success as any of them would have been. The mythology surrounding her first hit, “Locomotion”, only underscored it: her impromptu performance of Little Eva’s song at an Aussie Rules charity event led to a signing by local label Mushroom Records, seven weeks at number one, and Australia’s biggest-selling single of the decade. Her Neighbours profile must have helped convince PWL to sign her, but they already knew they had potential chart gold on their hands; the SAW re-recording “The Loco-Motion” (with restored hyphen and definite article) duly reached the top five in the UK, US and Canada (rather contradicting the popular notion that Kylie was never able to crack the American market).

Neighbours didn’t mean much to me—I was spending so much time on that student mag in 1987-88 that my TV-watching plummeted, not that I ever watched much soap—and a starring role in it, no matter how significant to its fans, didn’t seem like much basis for Pop Hugeness. The success of “Locomotion” (the non-SAW original) seemed instead to be a female counterpoint to another 1987 Australian number one, “He’s Gonna Step on You Again” by The Party Boys. The latter were a pub-rock supergroup, the musical equivalent of the footy players who cheered Kylie and her fellow cast-members on at that charity event. Both songs were covers, both seemed like one-offs, and both gave little indication of what was to come. (“He’s Gonna Step On You Again” will be better known to many as the version recorded by the Happy Mondays a few years later, under the snappier title “Step On”.)

So when Kylie became properly huge, which in 1980s Australia meant internationally huge, it was hard not to feel a tinge of envy—a tinge which would have been so much worse for an aspiring musician instead of writer/cartoonist like myself, but still a tinge. I’m sure I never thought it at the time, but there had to be some reason Kylie’s success seemed so objectionable compared to all the other naff pop of the day—some reason over and beyond this annoyingly catchy, very average song. (How much worse it must be today for Stefani Germanotta’s peers to contemplate her equally meteoric rise, with songs that are so much better—but I definitely sense something similar in some people’s reactions to the Gaga phenomenon. Forty-somethings like me, on the other hand, seem to warm to her easily, even having their dormant love of pop rekindled, perhaps because we’re no longer thinking “huh, what makes her so special?”.)

If that unfocussed envy was ever there, it didn’t last; after “I Should Be So Lucky”, Kylie’s SAW hits seemed to blend one into another, and if duetting with Jason Donovan was success I figured she was welcome to it. It wasn’t until her post-SAW Australian number one “Confide in Me” that I started paying attention again, and looked beyond the bubbly image... but there’ll be another chance for Later-Kylie discussions.

Meanwhile, I did have a brief flirtation with Neighbours a few years after Kylie’s tenure. In 1991 I spent a couple of months sharing a flat in Canberra with a friend who was a serious Ramsay Street addict, and caught several episodes despite myself. Later in the year, living in England as an international student, those episodes were just starting to screen on BBC1, and for a fleeting moment my advance knowledge of their plot points was small-talk gold. But did it translate into lasting social capital? Did Neighbours Knowledge score with the chicks? I should be so lucky. 4.

Later thoughts...

My score actually represents a warming to it after many years. It’s still a record I endure more than find pleasant; I don’t mind the first minute or so, but the bright shiny repetition soon outwears its welcome. Quite a feat, really, for something under three minutes long.

The timing was significant: 1988 was Australia’s bicentenary, and all things (and people) Australian were getting more than the usual amount of international attention that year. Kylie couldn’t have chosen a better moment to put out her travel-promo video.

Stock Aitken Waterman by 1988 were seen as a musical sausage factory churning out a succession of disposable singers, and there was no reason to suspect that Kylie would be an exception. That’s another reason “Lucky” felt so significant in early 1988, even if you didn’t like the track itself. Which way was the Kylie phenomenon developing? Would SAW’s involvement be the end of her? Given their track record, that seemed quite plausible. Kylie was already on course for a pop career before “Lucky”; “Locomotion” was huge in Australia before SAW had ever heard of her. (You can compare snippets of “Locomotion” and the SAW-produced “The Loco-Motion” at Wikipedia; they’re hardly worlds apart.) Who’s to say that her parallel-universe non-SAW career wouldn’t have ended up with some kind of UK success? On the other hand, she could equally have been Australia’s biggest one-hit wonder. Luck is such a large element of success, and Kylie was fortunate, fortunate, fortunate.

If she hadn’t become a pop star, Kylie might have translated her soap stardom into a lasting TV or movie career. If there’d been no “Locomotion” and “Lucky”, critics might have hailed her 1989 movie The Delinquents as a breakthrough into serious acting, and I might even have gone to see it. But instead it was overshadowed by a pop career that was already far more successful than any small Australian movie could hope to be.

Fairground Attraction, “Perfect”, 14 May 1988

“Perfect” was one of four number ones that Australia had in common with the UK in 1988, and I remember it well; it spent four weeks at the top there. In fact I can never see the title of Kylie’s “Got to be Certain” without setting it in my head to this tune, which has utterly erased any memory I had of the other. I’ll forever associate “Perfect” with one of the music reviewers on our student mag at Tas Uni that year, who went on to an indie singer-songwriter career in Melbourne. He quite liked it, and so do I. 6.

It’s drawn an extraordinarily negative reaction from Popular commenters, though. It seems as if some would like it more if it had a bit more ache and longing in the delivery, as opposed to a perceived smugness, to give it some satisfying English irony. I wonder if there are different cultural readings at work. It didn’t surprise me to learn that Reader was Glaswegian; there’s something about the tone of “Perfect” that matches very well the tones of the young Scottish women you’ll see on the streets of a Friday night, especially in Glasgow. But beneath that defiant surface lurks a recognition that things aren’t always, or even often, perfect; the song gains a situational irony, rather than explicit, when heard or sung in that context. It’s got to be perfect... but it isn’t. It’s shite—especially after a decade of Thatcher. The song thus serves as pure escapism: a soulful, smoky delivery would surely have been far too depressing to hit number one.

Thinking through the Australian reaction (given that we also sent it to number one): when it comes to expressions of just how bloody lovely everything is and should be, a certain kind of Aussie loses all sense of irony anyway. Queensland advertised itself successfully to domestic tourists as “beautiful one day, perfect the next”, when the state still had a reputation for police and government corruption and authoritarianism. The title of a 1960s critique of the nation called The Lucky Country, which its author intended ironically (we’d been living off our luck and it was running out), went into the language as an entirely unironic self-description, in the same way that Kiwis call New Zealand “God’s own country”. If you want the perfect expression of it, watch that alternative video of Kylie’s 1988 hit, as she drives through sunny Sydney. I should be so lucky: yes, you should, and you are. Lucky, lucky, lucky. Perfect? It’s got to be.

“Perfect” is about 45 seconds too long, but the retro skiffle backing is harmless enough, given the many other forms of retro we’re happy enough to hear. It’s disposable, catchy fluff; I didn’t buy the single then and wouldn’t now, but if it came on the radio I would say I liked it, to quote a certain marks-out-of-ten page. But as I don’t listen to commercial hits-and-memories radio, I can say that fairly safely; maybe I’d feel differently if I bumped into it regularly. (It’s times like these that I’m glad I haven’t owned a TV during the decade I’ve lived in Britain, if its use on ads has contributed to everyone’s loathing of it. I can completely understand how its use by Asda could suck all vestiges of joy from the song, whether or not you once enjoyed it. Talk about your situational irony.)

As an Australian number one, “Perfect” is another song that captures the bicentenary spirit: combine jingoistic celebration with recessionary fears and bingo, escapist number ones aplenty. If you don’t listen too closely to the words—which many people don’t—then they all evoke the same upbeat message: don’t worry, you’re in luck, everything’s perfect. It’s all simply irresistible! What a wonderful world. I’ve had the time of my life.

The UK’s 1988 number ones weren’t quite as overwhelmingly upbeat (at least on the surface) as Australia’s, but there are similar candidates ahead.

10 June 2010 · Music