Five of the nation's favourite 80s Number Ones (and the stories behind the music)
This Saturday (July 25th) ITV will broadcast the latest in their The Nation's Favourite... series, in which the public vote for their favourite songs and which have previously included hits from Motown, Christmas tunes and hits from the 1970s.
This week though it's the turn of Number Ones from the 1980s and will feature some pop classics from the likes of Spandau Ballet, Culture Club and The Pet Shop Boys, among many others. As of today, you can also get your hands on a brand new compilation album featuring 60 of the biggest-selling tunes from the decade of big hair and shoulder pads, which you can preview and buy on the right-hand side of this page.
Each and every one of the songs included reached Number One in the UK Singles Chart and so most of them will need little introduction, but behind every song there's a story, so we picked five of the tracks from this weekend's programme and dug a little deeper to bring you the trials and tribulations behind five of the decade's biggest hits...
The Human League – 'Don't You Want Me'
Founded in 1977 by Martyn Ware and Ian Craig Marsh - who later recruited frontman Phil Oakey - The Human League's early output was much more avant-garde than the shimmering synth pop they became known for. In fact, by 1980 they were on the verge of being dropped by their record label after their first two albums failed to chart. Tensions between the band members were beginning to grow and, just two weeks before a major European tour, Ware and Marsh quit the band to form Heaven 17, leaving Oakey with the Human League name, but also all of the band's debt and tour obligations.
Oakey famously recruited Joanne Catherall and Susan Sulley after spotting the teenagers dancing in a Sheffield nightclub, despite their lack of musical experience, and began a turbulent tour in which the girls were often pelted with objects by audiences who wanted to see the original lineup. The press were equally unimpressed, criticising Oakey and his “dancing girls”. Now firmly on their last chance, the label hooked them up with producer Martin Rushent and they began work on their 1981 album, Dare.
Oakey's vocals for 'Don't You Want Me' were recorded, bizarrely, in the studio's toilet – Rushent thought the tiled walls made his voice sound better – and although his parts were recorded quickly, Susan's took a little more time. After over 60 unsuccessful takes the atmosphere was getting a little tense, but then Rushent says something weird happened: “At that point my four-year-old son James walked in, stark bollock naked apart from a pair of green wellingtons, and went 'Allo!' Sue just cracked up, it broke the ice and on the next take we got the missing lines I was after.” Phil and the girls went away while Rushent finished the track with keyboardist Jo Callis. Oakey initially hated the finished version, but after positive reactions from the label he relented and the rest, as they say, is history.
Madness – 'House of Fun'
Madness were one of many ska bands like The Specials and The Beat that enjoyed a wave of popularity in the early 1980s and they were signed to Stiff Records, owned and run by the notorious Dave Robinson who, according to legend, kept a baseball bat by the desk in his office as means of settling arguments with his artists (it is rumoured that this was the inspiration behind the cricket bat wielded by Spinal Tap manager Ian Faith).
'House of Fun' was originally titled 'Chemist Facade' and featured just the verse and the bridge of the song we now know, finishing with what was originally the hook line “this is a chemist, not a joke shop.” That changed when Robinson walked into the studio towards the end of the recording session and, after one listen, demanded “where's the f***ing chorus?!” The band's keyboardist Mike Barson immediately sat down at the piano and wrote the new chorus but, not wanting to re-record the entire track, engineer Alan Winstanley recorded this separately with the intention of splicing it into the rest of the track.
This was before the days of modern technology like Pro Tools and so the edits, all done with a razor blade and tape, didn't quite go to plan: “When Suggs sang 'Welcome' it was just before the downbeat of the bar, so when I edited it in it went 'Elcome to the house of fun,' completely missing out the 'W'. The only solution was for him to go back in and dub in all the 'welcomes'. That was quite a challenge.”
The Police – 'Every Breath You Take'
Anyone who knows anything about The Police will probably already know that the relationship between bassist / lead vocalist Sting and the band's mercurial drummer, Stewart Copeland, was always tense, but by the time they came to record their fifth album Synchonicity, those tensions were at breaking point. Physical fights would regularly break out between the pair and the engineer, Hugh Padgham, would have to intervene to break them up. Things got so bad at one point that the band's manager was called in to stage an intervention and held a meeting to decide whether the album sessions should continue or not.
'Every Breath You Take' was one of the most difficult tracks to record, partly because of the constant disagreements about drum parts and the like, but also because of the searing heat at the Monserrat studio they were working in. Copeland would get so sweaty during his drum takes that the sticks would often fly out of his hands mid-take, to the point that Padgham had to gaffer tape them to his hands. After months of arduous recording sessions the album was finally finished and the the song in question was a huge hit, but the recording process took its toll and it was to be the last time The Police recorded an album together.
Soft Cell – 'Tainted Love'
'Tainted Love' was a breakthrough single for electronic duo Soft Cell and, much like with The Human League, it was timely one too – the duo's earlier singles had been popular in clubs but record sales were disappointing and the pair were told in no uncertain terms by their label that if their next single didn't perform any better, they would be dropped.
The song was originally recorded in 1964 by Gloria Jones as a B-side to her Northern Soul single ‘My Bad Boy's Comin' Home', which flopped on its initial release and failed to chart. A 1976 re-recording also failed to improve the song's fortunes and, in a macabre twist of fate, Jones was tragically killed less than a year later in a car accident which also took the life of her boyfriend, T-Rex frontman Marc Bolan.
Soft Cell's version of the track was given an extra layer of implied meaning when sung by the androgynous-looking Marc Almond and the song was a huge hit on the gay club scene before the single's release secured Soft Cell their first and only Number One and persuaded their label to fund the recording of their debut LP, Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret.
Michael Jackson – 'Billie Jean'
Michael Jackson's Thriller needs no introduction and as the song whose iconic video launched MTV, 'Billie Jean' was one of the biggest singles of the decade. Though Jackson never spoke publicly about the song's lyrics, there have been various versions of the story behind the track, but the most credible of these comes courtesy of Bruce Swedien, the album's engineer and right-hand man to producer Quincy Jones:
“Quincy says that the lyric that Michael wrote is highly personal. I’m sure that’s true. Michael told us... it was about a girl, that climbed over the wall at Michael’s house, and was lounging out there, by the swimming pool.... she was laying out there, near the pool , lounging... hangin’ out... with shades on, her bathing suit on. One morning she just showed up! Kind of like a stalker, almost. She had accused Michael of being the father of ONE of her twins... Is that possible? I don’t think so....”
Although the recording process was relative quick and painless, the mixing stage took a little longer. Swedien ended up doing a total of 91 different mixes for the track over several days, only for Jackson and his producer to decide the one they wanted was mix 2, which Swedien had completed early on the first day.