And on to the fourth part in our quest for Perfect Pop. I am very grateful for the many comments; I really appreciate the views, ideas, nominations and feedback (and feel greatly encouraged by the many kind words). So, here are ten more perfect pop songs, presented with the usual caveat that this exercise is entirely subjective.
The Monkees – Daydream Believer.mp3
It took me four posts in this series to decide which of three Monkees songs was the most perfect. To be truthful, I still don’t really know. But after discounting Last Train To Clarksville (which is on my Teen Dreams mix), it was between Daydream Believer and I’m A Believer. The attentive reader will have picked up which one I have gone for. It’s Davy Jones’ slightly nasal vocals, the joyous chorus and all the unexpected little touches in the arrangement — especially the ringing alarm clock before the first chorus and the piccolo before the fade out. John Stewart, who wrote this song, died of a stroke in January this year. A fascinating character in his own right, the former member of the Kingston Trio and early collaborator with John Denver was the US Democratic Party’s official songwriter during the Robert Kennedy campaign. He continued making music right up to his death.
Best bit: “…what can it mean-eh…” (0:51)
Donna Summer – Last Dance.mp3
Among the comments to the last Perfect Pop post was a nomination for Donna Summer’s I Feel Love. With its brain-poking synth line and Donna’s sexually charged vocals, it is indeed a contender. But my preference would be for the similar Love To Love You Baby or to the rather different Last Dance. I’ll opt for the latter on strength of its more complete pop sensibility. It starts off as a ballad as Donna announces sadly that this might be the end. It may well be so, but, you know, screw this, if this should really be the last dance, let’s party. 1:20 minutes into the song, the song picks up its glorious vibe. A fantastic track written for the 1978 disco film Thank God It’s Friday, we must forgive its reception of an Oscar for Best Song, often an accolade for crap.
Best bit: “So let’s dance that last dance…” (4:32)
Take That – Back For Good.mp3
The critics agree, Back For Good flies the flag for pop perfection. They are right, of course, though I wonder whether they would still rate the song so highly if the unjustly vilified Wet Wet Wet has released it. Listen to it, Back For Good sounds like it comes straight off Popped In, Souled Out, right down to Gary Barlow doing a perfect simulation of Marti Pellow’s phrasing. Within a year of this reaching number 1 in Britain, Take That took off, with Robbie Williams becoming an international icon of gurning (except in the US), while Barlow released at least one other song that pisses over anything Williams has ever done, titled Wondering.
Best bit: You can’t hear Robbie Williams. Oh, OK, Barlow and the other guys harmonise (2:36)
Wet Wet Wet – Angel Eyes.mp3
If the critics can have Back For Good, then I’ll have Angel Eyes. Listen to Popped In, Souled Out, the Clydebank foursome’s 1987 debut album. It’s two sides of excellent pop music, borrowing from soul without the conceit of actually them actually being soul men (that came with their release of a Memphis sessions album soon after, which was not really bad but entirely redundant). Popped In had a few tracks nearing perfection. I really like Temptation, a very underrated song. But the highpoint comes towards the end of the first side. Angel Eyes makes some of the best use of strings in pop, while Marti Pellow’s vocal gymnastics underscore the utter joyousness of the song (here’s a link to the lyrics, you might need it).
Best bit: Marti Pellow burps (0:23)
Amii Stewart – Knock On Wood.mp3*
If disco ever created anything like Phil Spector’s fabled Wall of Sound, then it reached its defining moment with Amii Stewart’s explosive cover of Eddie Floyd’s 1966 hit (covered also by David Bowie during his mid-70s soul period). The sleeve of the single hinted at this version’s gay disco influence — remember that disco was a broad church which brought together the dance music of gay clubs, Euro synth and the funk, with the former two in particular often coalescing. Released in late 1978, at the peak of disco fever, Knock On Wood dispensed with the customary 4/4 disco beat. The brief HiNRG craze set in five years later, but Knock On Wood set the template. Action-packed with sound effects such as thunder and lightning, plus old-style soul horns, an insistent synth line, brutal drumming and Amii’s aerobatic vocals, Knock On Wood leaves you exhausted.
Best bit: Amii hits a high note to the backdrop of thundering drums and the backing vocals contemplating DIY (2:04)
Oasis – Don’t Look Back In Anger.mp3
It is fashionable to take a diminishing view of Oasis (not for too much longer, however: the ’90s revival is about to go into full swing); when it comes critical acceptance, it seems Blur and Pulp have won the Britpop war agaginst the monobrowed oafs. But, my goodness, neither Blur nor Pulp ever created so persuasive a trio of pop masterpieces as Don’t Look Back In Anger, Champagne Supernova and Wonderwall. I’ve often wondered why the rousing chorus for the former has never been used on English football terraces. It seems perfect.
Best bit: The drum bit (3:36)
OMD – If You Leave.mp3*
A couple of years ago my nephews became enthused by Nada Surf’s creditable cover version of If You Leave, which appeared on The O.C. (during one of the series’ best scenes: Seth and the gorgeous Anna at the airport). I don’t think it is possible to mess this song up. Andrew McCluskey might not have been a great singer (and certainly not a good dancer!), but his performance here is quite lovely, gently manic. By the time If You Leave came out in early 1986, OMD’s stock in Britain was very low, and the single flopped (my purchase of the 12″ single notwithstanding). In the US, however, it was a big hit, largely on strength of its appearance in Pretty In Pink.
Best bit: “Don’t look baaaack” (4:06)
Hues Corporation – Rock The Boat.mp3*
One of the proto-disco hits, Rock The Boat was a chart topper in the US in 1974. It is an infectiously joyous song, and a tune which can turn your low mood when you hear. Alone for that, it qualifies for the perfect pop label. If that fantastic piano does not do so anyway. The story behind the group’s name should make you want to champion the Hues Corporation. The band originally wanted to be called The Children of Howard Hughes, with a strong dose of irony since Howard was not known for his enlightened views on race relations. The record company, mindful of the billionaire’s ire, vetoed the name but could not rightfully object to the group’s alternative: the punning Hues Corporation. Reportedly old Howard was rather pissed off at that, though his absence from New York City’s disco nightlife has been attributed to alternative reasons.
Best bit: “We’ll be sailing with a cargo full of…love and devotion” (0:55)
Slade – Cum On Feel The Noize.mp3
A good argument can be made that the richest mine of perfection in pop can be located in glam rock and its non-identical twin, bubblegum pop (glam is really amplified bubblegum, with louder guitars and faster drums. And funnier clothes). If that is so — and I’m not inclined to demolish a theory which I have just constructed myself — then Cum On Feel The Noize is in close proximity of pop’s absolute peak by dint of it being one of the best glam rock tunes. This track makes you want to shout along, punch the air and, indeed, feel the noize, no matter how old you are. And isn’t that ability to engage the listener a sign of pop perfection?
Best bit: Obviously, “Baby, baby, baybeah” (0:01)
The Foundations – Baby Now That I’ve Found You.mp3
This Motown-ish track by the interracial and intergenerational British soul outfit just shades the more famous Build Me Up Buttercup. Great vocals by Clem Curtis (which are reminiscent of the Temptations’ David Ruffin), great backing vocals, fine drumming, and a melancholy in the tune which complements beautifully the anxiety of the lyrics. Note how, after the intro, the song launches straight into the anxious chorus: the mood lifts when the singer remembers their first meeting, but soon we feel the fear brought on by his realisation that she doesn’t need him. In sound, delivery, mood and structure, this is the greatest Temptations song the Temps never sang.
Best bit: The “ba-da-ba-da” backing vocals (0:26)