Almost top of the pops: why the best singles hit number two

The Pogues' Fairytale of New York, which reached number two in 1987
The Pogues' Fairytale of New York, which reached number two in 1987 - Alamy
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In the autumn of 1979, my determination to absorb every detail of the first single I ever owned proved traumatic. If only I’d realised that reading the information printed on paper on the inner circle of the 7” disc while crouched in front of an open fire would cause the record itself to buckle and warp, I could have saved myself no end of grief. “Mum,” I said, tears already flowing down my nine-year old face, is it supposed to do this?” Ideally, no. So back to Woolworth’s we went, to buy the same record for the second time that day.

I sometimes wonder just how many copies of that first single I would need to have melted in order for it to have reached number one. As it was, Master Blaster (Jammin’), by Stevie Wonder, took its place on a surprisingly vast list of classic songs that peaked at number two on the British chart. Wonder himself has stalled at the silver medal position three times – once with the timeless Happy Birthday, his celebration of the life of Dr Martin Luther King Jr. – while reaching the top spot only once, with I Just Called To Say I Loved You. Clearly, it’s a tough world out there.

But at least he’s in good company. Spanning eight decades, the Number 2 Club – I admit it, the name needs some work – features, among many others, such standards as Penny Lane and Strawberry Fields (The Beatles), Waterloo Sunset (The Kinks), Cool For Cats (Squeeze), Rocket Man (Elton John), Love Is The Drug (Roxy Music), Girls Just Want To Have Fun (Cyndi Lauper), Manic Monday (The Bangles), Oliver’s Army (Elvis Costello & The Attractions), Wonderwall (Oasis), Sweet Dreams (Eurythmics) and In The Air Tonight (Phil Collins) to name just… well, quite a lot, actually.

The topic is especially relevant this very week due to the ripples of fondness and nostalgia emanating from the recent death of Shane MacGowan. Thirty-five years after its original release, The Pogues’ timeless Fairytale Of New York could this year – at Christmas, no less – ascend to the summit of the British singles chart for the very first time. Despite spending a combined, and whopping, 124-weeks on the Official Charts Company (and before that, the Gallup) listings over the years, the song’s highest position to date was – you guessed it – number two.

Originally released on November 23 1987 as the lead-off single from If I Should Fall From Grace With God, the band’s third album, Fairytale Of New York was kept off the top spot by the Pet Shop Boys’ cover version of the Elvis Presley standard Always On My Mind. That same week, while introducing the countdown of the seasonal top 10 on Top Of The Pops, Radio 1 DJ Gary Davies seemed determined to salt the wound by telling the show’s millions of viewers that “[were] you ask any artist, they’ll tell you that the most prestigious chart position is the Christmas number one”. Frank Murray, The Pogues’ manager, couldn’t believe his boys had been beaten by “two queens and a drum machine”.

Appearing on the BBC4 documentary Fairytale Of New York: The Full Story, banjo and mandola player Jem Finer spoke of realising that his band’s song “was going to be number one or number two” while listening to the chart as it was counted down on the wireless. But then the DJ “announced number two and it was like that horrible instant when you’re waiting for the first syllable… and as soon as you hear [The Pogues] it’s like, ‘S___!’” If anything, Shane MacGowan took it less well. “I thought it [Always On My Mind] was a disgusting f______ record,” he said. “It was a cynical, jaded, pathetic [release]… and I quite liked the Pet Shop Boys before that.”

At least The Pogues were bested in a fair fight, mind. In the summer of 1977, the Sex Pistols’ uncanny ability to unite the public and private sector, not to mention bosses and unions, in shock and outrage unleashed a grand conspiracy to suppress the song God Save The Queen in the week of Queen Elizabeth II’s Silver Jubilee. The farrago began 10 days before the record’s release when staff at the plant at which it was due to be pressed downed tools in protest at its incendiary content. Twenty-four hours later, print workers refused to set the plates needed to produce a cover bearing artist Jamie Reid’s instantly iconic image of the Queen with a safety pin through her lip. Released on May 27, Woolworths, Boots and W.H. Smith refused to stock the single.

Sex Pistols at the EMI Studios, 1976
Sex Pistols at the EMI Studios, 1976 - R. Jones

Although the Sex Pistols had been marked men since the very moment they swore up a storm on Thames Television’s Today programme in December 1976, come the following spring the quartet had become the focal point of a full-blown moral panic. After being dropped by both EMI and A&M, the release of God Save The Queen on the maverick, and relatively small, Virgin label made them easier prey for what looks (at the very least) like an establishment stitch-up to keep their punk rock classic off the top of the chart.

In his book Richard Branson: The Authorised Biography, the author Mick Brown reveals that “Branson’s suspicion that the chart had been fixed was lent weight by an anonymous phone call alleging that, in the week that the Sex Pistols might have been expected to reach number one, the BPI [British Phonographic Institute] had issued an extraordinary secret directive… that all chart-return shops connected with record companies be dropped from the weekly census of best-selling records. Virgin, the store where most Sex Pistols records were being sold, was struck off the list. A week later, the decision was reversed.”

It gets worse. The head of the British Phonographic Institute at this time was Warner Elektra Atlantic Records managing director John Fruin. According to the peerless Pistols biography, England’s Dreaming, Fruin subsequently lost his BPI gig after irregularities were uncovered regarding chart positions of numerous WEA acts. In other words, the man had form. Despite God Save The Queen selling four times as many copies as its nearest competitor, the record shows that the number one single on the week of the Silver Jubilee was the double-A side of First Cut Is The Deepest and I Don’t Want To Talk About It, by Rod Stewart.

In time, Pistols’ guitarist Steve Jones was able to regard the group’s victimisation as the highest compliment the British establishment can bestow on troublesome youth. In his memoir Lonely Boy, Jones writes that “even though I was p---ed off about it at the time, I realised that lots of s--- people have [released has] got to the top of the charts, but no one else has managed to mobilise the whole might of the British record business to stop people from knowing a single had got to number one. It’s a badge of honour I’m proud to wear to this day.”

Elsewhere, it was not so easy to be quite so sanguine. Upon its release in January 1981, Vienna, by Ultravox, was initially held at number two by John Lennon’s Woman, a track re-released following the ex-Beatle’s assassination in New York City a month earlier. Fair enough. But after only seven days, the British band’s song – which their record label didn’t want to release as a single, anyway – was famously leapfrogged by the novelty record Shaddap You Face by the Australian-American singer and poet Joe Dolce. As if this weren’t quite galling enough, the two acts’ held their respective positions for three weeks.

In 2017, Ultravox frontman Midge Ure declined the opportunity to meet Dolce during a visit to the singer’s country of residence. “When I was in Australia I got a message from a promoter – do you want to meet Joe Dolce? And I said no,” Ure told the Scottish newspaper The Daily Record. “Not because of any gripe or bad feelings,” he was quick to explain, “but I’ve had [almost] 40 years of people talking about Joe bloody Dolce and I don’t want to spend what time I’ve got left talking about when I met him. So I said, ‘Thanks very much, say hi from me, but no, I just can’t go there.”

Joe Dolce, who stopped Ultravox hitting number one in 1981
Joe Dolce, who stopped Ultravox hitting number one in 1981 - Getty

Despite failing to reach number one, Vienna sold more than half a million copies in the United Kingdom alone. Sixteen years later, however, a three-week stint in the silver medal spot – not to mention 10 weeks overall in the top 10 – saw Tubthumping, by Chumbawamba, earn itself a platinum disc for making it into the homes of more than 600,000 record buyers. More remarkable still, in the United States, where the track wasn’t released as a single, its parent album, Tubthumper, was bought by more than three million people.

Far better than almost all of the brittle class-based anthems of the adjacent Britpop movement, these days I think of the song as being a companion piece Common People, by Pulp. But while Jarvis Cocker’s watertight study of the English obsession with the working class is told through the prism of a wealthy overseas student, Chumbawamba sang from the point of view of the “lower orders” themselves. Not that it made much of a difference for either of them, mind. As with Tubthumping, so with Common People – which also stalled at number two.

Before becoming unlikely pop stars, Chumbawamba had invested a good deal of energy perfecting the declining art of getting up people’s noses with various scrapes and stunts. (Trading under the name The Middle, for example, the group wangled an invitation to perform at the birthday party of former Liberal Democrat leader David Steel.) In this light, their dalliance with stardom can be viewed as an experiment in testing the boundaries of the corporate music industry. Never mind that they wrote a song that attained permanent fame – their time in the winners’ circle was always destined to be fleeting.

Chumbawamba backstage at the Brits, 1998
Chumbawamba backstage at the Brits, 1998 - Shutterstock

Fittingly, it seems the band weren’t even all that bothered that the single for which they will forever be known failed to top the chart. Speaking in 2021, Chumbawamba singer Dunstan Bruce told me that he “remembers doing interviews and saying that how we judge success is that Tubthumping appeared in the Rovers Return, the Queen Vic, and that Homer Simpson sung it. To me, and to us, what could be better than that? That’s rock royalty that is, having Homer Simpson singing your song.”

As to whether other recipients the Almost Top Of The Pops Club are quite so gracious, I can’t say. But what I do know is that list of classic songs that lived for a time right next door to number one makes for both fascinating reading and good listening. Joining the singles already itemized in this piece one can also find, among others, Streets Of Philadelphia (Bruce Springsteen), Ain’t No Pleasing You (Chas & Dave), O Superman (Laurie Anderson), Golden Brown (The Stranglers), American Pie (Don McClean), Gimme Some Lovin’ (The Spencer Davis Group), Wake Up Little Susie (The Everly Brothers), and Sit Down (James).

So at this festive time of year, let’s raise a glass for those who almost, but didn’t quite, make it to the top. Because regardless of the quality of the songs on offer, no one dreams of attaining the runner-up’s spot. Apart, perhaps, from Joe Jackson, whose masterful ballad Be My Number Two peaked at number 70.

The 10 best number two singles

10. Ralph McTell, Streets Of London (1974)

Released a whopping five years after the English singer-songwriter first recorded the song, the dramatic swoop of Streets Of London sees Ralph McTell address the issue of class privilege via a lyric in which he guides a friend, or maybe a lover, through a capital city strewn with broken people. Unless Puff The Magic Dragon ever reaches number two in the British chart, this is the saddest single to (almost) make it to the top.

9. Dire Straits, Private Investigations (1982)

A film noir movie set to music, Private Investigations is as unlikely a major hit single as you could hope to hear. Sparsely arranged and lacking a chorus, its lyric features a gumshoe down on his luck and snake-bitten with cynicism by the human folly from which he earns a wage. “Scarred for life, no compensation,” sings Mark Knopfler on this less-than-upbeat classic.

8. Chas & Dave, Ain’t No Pleasing You (1982)

To a child of the north, Chas & Dave were a confusing proposition. Hearing the line “You’ve got more rabbit than Sainsbury’s,” on the radio – from their 1979 song Rabbit – I could only wonder, ‘What on earth is Sainsbury’s?’ But with Ain’t No Pleasing You, the Tottenham duo went from the parochialism of then regional supermarkets to something far more universal. What’s more, they did so without conceding an inch of their London charm.

7. Cyndi Lauper, Girls Just Want To Have Fun (1983)

A feminist anthem in an age before such matters had become mainstream, the message of Girls Just Want To Have Fun was both clear and simple – that gals have the right to have the same experiences as the guys. As well as being an evergreen banger, this most joyous and defiant of songs is also the perfect foil for Cyndi Lauper’s extraordinary talents as a singer.

6. Kim Wilde, Kids In America (1981)

Twenty-four years after releasing his first single (Honeycomb, with the Wildcats), early-day British rock’n’roller Marty Wilde proved himself an adaptable tunesmith for a modern age. Written with the help of son Ricky, this debut single for daughter Kim fizzed with the kind of new wave energy that caught the ear of young record buyers up and across the country. Fans of the song take note: an especially caffeinated cover version by the US band The Muffs can be found on the soundtrack album to the 1995 film Clueless.

Kim Wilde in 1982
Kim Wilde in 1982 - Rex

5. Laurie Anderson, O Superman (1981)

Originally championed by – who else? – John Peel, the spark behind the wonderfully weird O Superman came when Laurie Anderson, attending a performance of Jules Massenet’s 1885 opera El Cid, decided to appropriate one of its arias in the shape of a deeply avant-garde song for which the record buyers of Britain took a tumble. Almost 43 years after its original release, it remains a bewildering and surprising hit single.

4. Stevie Wonder, Master Blaster (Jammin’) (1980)

In 1980, Stevie Wonder had been on the road headlining concerts at which his special guest was one Bob Marley. Come the autumn of that year, the influence of the reggae superstar on the Tamla Motown superstar could be heard on the entirely sublime worldwide hit Master Blaster (Jammin’). Along with its wondrous arrangement and patient tempo, this is surely the only mainstream single to feature the word “Zimbabwe”.

4. Squeeze, Up The Junction (1979)

Don’t waste your time searching for a finer opening couplet than “I never thought it would happen with me and the girl from Clapham”, because there isn’t one. A sublime number about happy young lovers who are driven apart by drinking and gambling, Up The Junction is a kitchen-sink drama that tells its vivid and resolutely English story in a little over three minutes. Better yet, it does so without the help of a chorus. A masterpiece of invention and economy.

3. Elvis Costello & The Attractions, Oliver’s Army (1979)

A year before its release as the lead-off single from Costello’s third album, Armed Forces, Oliver’s Army was destined only to be a b-side. But the idea of Attractions’ keyboardist Steve Nieve to place the piano trill from Dancing Queen into the space between the first chorus and the second verse gave the song a lease of life that propelled it all the way to number two. As well as being a premium slice of song-based pop music, this tight vignette about racism and mercenaries is as subversive a hit single as you will ever hear.

2. Sex Pistols, God Save The Queen (1977)

The single that terrorized a nation, God Save The Queen is both a gem of a rock and a slab of protest music that amounts to nothing less than an alternative State of the Nation address. Certainly, attempts by a terrified older order to suppress its intelligent fury proved that in 1977 at least the concept of free speech was a privilege extended only to the “right” kind of people. Not that it mattered, mind. Sex Pistols 1, Establishment 0.

1. The Pogues featuring Kirsty MacColl, Fairytale Of New York (1987)

The genesis of Fairytale Of New York can be traced back to 1986 and a claim from Elvis Costello, their producer at the time, that the London band couldn’t write a Christmas song. How wrong could he have been? Now into the fifth decade of what seems like a permanent tenure in the affections of the nation, this masterful vignette manages to combine the sadness and pathos of seasonal songs such as Christmas Card From A Hooker In Minneapolis, by Tom Waits, with the hope and joy of the very finest festive fare. In other words, it’s a classic.

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