Deserving But Denied: 33 Number Twos That Should Have Been Number One
It's obvious that you can't rely on the pop charts as a mechanism for tabulating the comparative excellence of hit records. But the charts are actually not much better at displaying how popular a pop single is. Because the volume of releases from the industry and the amount of purchasing power out there in consumerland both fluctuate with the seasons, a Number One single in an off-peak period--like the post-Xmas lull of January--can have sold less than any of the Top Ten's singles during busier times of year. The chart placing of a record is also affected by pure contingency--what releases by heavy-hitter groups just happen to go out at the same time. (Tough luck for all those Sixties greats who happened to release a single the same week as the Beatles or the Stones). This list honors those fantastically fine and/ or epochally significant singles that were cheated by some historical quirk or other from fulfilling their true destiny: getting to Number One. Upon investigation, these injustices turned out to be so numerous that the List of Ten format had to be overspilled thrice over, even after leaving out many fabulous #2 singles
The Who, "My Generation", November 1965.
It stands to reason that the Sixties was a cruelly competitive time. All the genius and creative energy around meant that many classic singles-- Dave Clark Five's "Bits and Pieces", Petula Clark's "Downtown", the Troggs's "Wild Thing"--fell just short of the top spot. But it seems particularly unjust that The Who's defining anthem of mod frustration and pride never went all the way. Indeed a measure of the Who's distant third stature c.f. Beatles and Stones was that they never would score a #1 at all.
The Beatles , "Penny Lane/Strawberry Fields Forever", February 1967.
Arguably the Fab Four's greatest double A-side and conceivably the world's first concept single (both sides addressing the theme of nostalgia and helping to kickstart psychedelia's cult of childhood), this release nonetheless ended the Beatles unbroken run of Number Ones (eleven in all) that went back to 1963's ''From Me To You". Perhaps "Strawberry Fields" was just too trippy for the general public? For a similar fate befell the equally out-there Magical Mystery Tour EP ("I Am the Walrus" etc) at the other end of 1967.
The Kinks, "Waterloo Sunset", May 1967.
One of a number of 67-defining singles--see also Traffic's "Hole in My Shoe"--to stall at the runner-up spot, "Waterloo Sunset"'s shortfall is particularly poignant because the song constitutes the summit of Ray Davies's achievement as a songwriter (give or take the indian summer that was 1968's The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society).
The Jackson 5, "I Want You Back," February 1970
Anybody looking to prove that the universe is a botched creation ruled over by a callous, vindictive demiurge need only point to the shocking not-actually-Number-One-ness of this pop-soul cataclysm.
Don McLean, "American Pie", January 1972.
As if somehow always already a "golden oldie", this was a monstrously prolonged radio hit, and Zeitgeist-wise it distilled the early Seventies mood of melancholy retro-spection. But despite sixteen weeks on the chart it never actually topped them.
Gary Glitter, "Rock and Roll (Parts 1 & 2)", June 1972
Massive in discos, the almost-instrumental "Part 2" was what drove Glitter's breakthrough single to the very edge of pop's peak. At once lumpen and avant-garde, the missing link between the Troggs and techno, this controlled stampede of caveman chants and dead-echoing guitar doesn't actually sound anything like the Fifties rock'n'roll it purports to resurrect. Next year's "Do You Wanna Touch Me" and "Hello Hello I'm Back Again" also stopped one place short, before "I'm the Leader of the Gang (I Am)" finally put Glitter and genius producer Mike Leander where they belonged.
T. Rex, "Solid Gold Easy Action" (December 1972)
Number ones galore under his belt, Marc Bolan can't complain about his treatment at the hands of the UK Chart. That said, despite the Beatles-level fandemonium of "T.Rextasy", several of his best tunes-- "Ride A White Swan", "Jeepster" (held off by Benny Hll's "Ernie (The Fastest Milkman in the West)"!!!), and "Children of the Revolution"--swooped to #2 but never scaled pop's summit. Likewise "Solid Gold Easy Action", Marc's strangest single of all, with its jolting beat, enigmatic title and the sculpted hysteria of its chorus.
The Osmonds, "Crazy Horses" (November 1972)
Surprisingly hard rockin' tune from the Mormon clan, with a whinnying synth-riff that winnowed its way into your brain and refused to budge. Kept off the top spot by Chuck Berry's execrable "My Ding-A-Ling" but the Osmonds could take consolation from their own Little Jimmy's subsequent annexation of the Xmas #1 with the execrabler still "Long Haired Lover from Liverpool".
The Sweet, "Ballroom Blitz" (September 73)
From its deliciously campy intro patter ("are you ready, boys?" etc) to its frisky Bo Diddley beat, "Blitz" is the definitive Sweet monstertune, but--despite entering at #2 and hovering there for three weeks-- it stayed stuck. Oddly, the same chart position was reached by its immediate predecessor "Hellraiser" and immediate successor "Teenage Rampage" and the latterday ultra-classic "Fox on the Run". Sole Sweetsingle to go all the way: "Blockbuster".
Sparks, "This Town Ain't Big Enough For the Both of Us" (May 1974)
Branded into the memory-flesh of anyone who saw the Mael brothers perform it on Top of the Pops, this torrid, swashbuckling fantasia was fended off the pole position by the Rubettes's sickly "Sugar Baby Love". Five years later Sparks tried to restore some cosmic balance with the would-be self-fulfilling prophecy of "Number One Song In Heaven" but despite killer Eurodiscotronic production from Giorgio Moroder, to no avail.
Hot Chocolate, "You Sexy Thing" (December 1975)
As quintessentially Seventies as Sparks or Sweet, these hardy hit parade perennials paused poised at #2 for three weeks (thanks to the juggernaut that was Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody") with this risqué slice of Britfunk. Errol Brown's delivery of explicit (for its time and context) adult content like "now you're lying next to me/giving it to me" and "now you lying cross from me/making love to me" flushed many a pre-teen cheek even though the song spoke of things beyond our ken. Touchingly, the "miracle" Errol believed in was apparently his missus, Ginette. Consolation prize for not making it all the way: rereleases and remixes have made "You Sexy Thing" the only song to be a UK Top 10 in the Seventies, Eighties, and Nineties.
Wings, "Silly Love Songs" and "Let Em In" (summer 1976)
Culminating with bestselling-single-of-the-Seventies "Mull of Kintyre", 1976/77 was Macca's most successful post-Beatles phase (with the possible exception of 1983/84, but the latter period was nonstop drek). This brace of winsome confections from Wings At The Speed Of Sound confirmed everything the detractors (from Lennon on down) said about Paul's sweet tooth and miniaturist craftsmanship. But you'd have to be pretty hard-of-heart to resist their considerable charm, plus the metapop of "Silly Love Songs" cannily deflects all critique in advance with its upfront and unashamed candour.
Heatwave, "Boogie Nights" (February 1977)
This sublime shimmer of discofunk hovered at #2 on both the UK chart (where it was eclipsed by Leo Sayer, god help us) and the Billboard Hot 100, appropriately enough given the group's Transatlantic line-up. Heatwave's British keyboard player and "Boogie Nights" songwriter Rod Temperton went on to pen "Rock With You", "Thriller" and other hits for Michael Jackson.
Sex Pistols, "God Save the Queen" (June 1977)
Punk folklore maintains that conniving by the authorities kept this act of sonic sedition off the top spot to avoid the treasonous insult to Her Majesty during the Silver Jubilee. On one of the rival UK Top 40 charts, the #2 space was, in an Orwellian twist, blanked out altogether, turning the Pistols into an unband and 'God Save the Queen' into an unsingle, unrelease, unhit. Meanwhile Rod Stewart's "I Don't Want To Talk About It" / "First Cut Is The Deepest" sealed over the cracks in the British polity by maintaining its emollient grip on #1 for a fourth week.
Elvis Costello, "Oliver's Army" (February 1979)
Costello's one true pop moment (his only other top 10 hits were cover versions, "I Can't Stand Up for Falling Down" and "A Good Year For the Roses") so it's sad that this Abba-influenced piano-rippling number didn't climb to the highest height.
Squeeze, "Cool for Cats" (March 1979") and "Up the Junction" (June 1979)
More New Wavers not getting their proper dues. Touted as heirs to Lennon-McCartney, choonsmith Chris Difford and wordsman Glenn Tilbrook narrowly missed #1 twice in the spring-summer of '79 with the cheeky disco-flavored "Cats" and the poignant Sixties-evoking social realism of "Junction".
M, "Pop Muzik" (April 1979)
One of those hits so inescapably dominant that you have to rub your eyes in disbelief when checking the Guinness hit singles guide and discovering it never actually made it to #1. Robin Scott's proto-pomo metapop celebration was naturally a wow with radio deejays (as it was calculated to be), which doubtless explains the aura of ubiquitousness that clings to this tune. But Art Garfunkel's "Bright Eyes" stopped its rise.
Adam and the Ants, "Antmusic" and "Kings of the Wild Frontier" (winter 1980/81)
Adam and his merry minions at their most witty ("Antmusic") and thrillingly tribal ("Kings"--ooh that double-drummer polyrhythmic intro). In consolation, the Antman would subsequently make it to Number One three times (most notably with the autumn-of-81 dominating "Prince Charming") before his star faded.
Ultravox, "Vienna" (January 1981)
Can't say I was ever a huge fan but as a synthpop-era defining slice of pseudo-Mittel Europa pomp, this deserved better than to hover beneath Joe Dolce's "Shaddap Your Face" for a full three weeks.
Laurie Anderson, "O Superman" October 1981
With Radio One's evening deejays and then daytime jocks too falling into lockstep with John Peel, this vocodered oddity by downtown New York performance artist/experimental composer Laurie Anderson joined the grand British tradition of novelty hits. But despite the cod-surrealist spectacle of an interpretative dance by Top of The Pops's resident leggy troupe (there being no video and Anderson having declined to perform) "Superman"'s climb was halted.
Altered Images, "Happy Birthday" (winter 1981)
Seventeen weeks on the charts and three of them at #2, this irresistible bounce 'n 'shimmer of fizzy glee was a chart topper in all but hard unforgiving fact. With the gorgeous "I Could Be Happy" they tried the classic trick of releasing a follow-up that contains the same keyword in its title (see Pete Frampton's "Show Me the Way" and "Baby I Love Your Way") but never hit as big again.
The Stranglers, "Golden Brown" (January 1982).
Only their second hit single about heroin (the first was "Don't Bring Harry," their sick-and-twisted offering as Xmas single in 1979) but it sure would have been nice'n'sleazy if they'd gone all the way with this beguiling waltz-time oddity. A fitting capper to the Stranglers career as New Wave's most prolific hit machine. Alas…
Frankie Goes to Hollywood, "Welcome To the Pleasuredome " (March 1985)
Not so much on its musical merits: a grand glistening Horn production of cinematic funk, it's a lot of record but not a lot of song. But getting a record-breaking four number ones with your first four singles would have been just reward for Frankie and ZTT having brought some tumultuous eventfulness to an otherwise fairly barren 1984.
Salt-N-Pepa, "Push It" (June 1988)
Golden age hip hop at its most hooky and instant, the electro-pulsating groove resembles a funked-up Devo (hark at the titular echo of "Whip It"!) but the raunch of the vocals makes Salt-N-Pepa comes over like the female equivalent/equal of Rick "Superfreak" James.
Deelite, "Groove Is In the Heart" (September 1990)
So omnipresent that its charm turned to irritant in record time, it's almost impossible to believe this wasn't Number One. Apparently, it was. Sales-wise "Groove" tied with the reissue of Steve Miller Band's "The Joker," so an arcane rule of chart tabulation was invoked and "The Joker" was granted the supreme position because its sales had gone up the most from the previous week.
The KLF, "Justified and Ancient" (December 1991)
Although Bill Drummond made it to #1 with the Timelords (and then published a manual on how to have a number one single) and then again with the KLF's "3 AM Eternal", it's still sad that his greatest feat as pop conceptualist and mischief-maker--getting Tammy Wynette to sing "they're justified and they're ancient/and they like to roam the land" over a house beat on TOTP--was not appropriately rewarded.
The Prodigy, "Everybody in the Place" EP (January 1992)
Hardcore rave classic thwarted by the Wayne's World spun off rerelease of "Bohemian Rhapsody". Gah!
Shut Up and Dance, "Raving I'm Raving" (May 1992)
What is it about ardkore rave and the number two? See also: SL2's marvelous "On A Ragga Tip" the month before and Smart E's admittedly ridiculous "Sesame's Treet" later that summer. "Raving I'm Raving" went straight in the charts at #2 and might have gone higher if it hadn't had to be withdrawn on account of its hefty samples from Mark Cohn's AOR ballad "Walking In Memphis".
Pulp, "Common People" (June 1995)
Britpop's finest four minutes: Pulp's epic anthem brought class struggle back to the pop charts, the honed wit and keenly observed economy of the lyric confirming Jarvis Cocker to be the best wordsmith of his kind since Morrissey. It entered at Number Two but was barred from full triumph by Robson and Jerome's "Unchained Medley."
T2 Ft Jodie Aysha, "Heartbroken" (December, 2007)
The North Rises Again. Flagship tune of the vibrant "bassline house" scene (a UK garage offshoot based in Sheffield, Nottingham, Leeds, Huddersfield, and other North Eastern cities) the deliciously pop-frothy "Heartbroken" crossed over big-time, but in the end proved unable to breach the barricade of banality that was "Bleeding Love" by X-Factor champion Leona Lewis.