Single of the week

Chain Reaction (Diana Ross)

In 1981, after two decades with Motown Records, Diana changed labels. She signed a $20m contract with RCA in America and an international deal with Capitol/EMI. Her first UK hit for the new label was a winner probably because it was a cover of a 1950s chart-topper in the shape of Why Do Fools Fall In Love. The majority of the material for the new label certainly didn’t excite the public with the first half a dozen hits reaching mediocre chart positions. Then a super group of brothers got involved and things changed.

In the early eighties, Barry Gibb, alongside producers Karl Richardson and Albhy Gauten, discussed working on some songs for Diana Ross. They finally got around to it in 1985, which resulted in the album Eaten Alive. The title track, co-written with Michael Jackson, was the first single released from it and stalled at number 71. As Barry Gibb described, “Diana Ross is a woman of many parts, and she concentrates on about a dozen things at once. She might be hosting the Academy Awards the same week as she’s doing her vocals.”

The album was due to have an August release but was delayed for a month. The record label decided that the title track was to be the first single issued but the press slated it with Rolling Stone magazine writer Davitt Sigerson calling Michael Jackson’s input ‘unhelpful help’ and noted that the song was ‘certainly his worst effort since Muscles.’ A 12″ single mix was better received by club DJs but ignored by radio.

The album was finished and ready for release but, “Diana was still looking for that one song she could call a single,” Barry Gibb remembered in a 2001 interview. Maurice Gibb reasoned, “We thought, wouldn’t it be great to make a great Supremes record — we’ve already got the lead singer!” Barry continued, “It was Robin who persuaded her by saying, ‘We think it’s time you did something that you would have done with the Supremes and not just Diana Ross’. Diana quite liked the idea, so that’s exactly what the brothers did. “We had Chain Reaction all along but didn’t have the nerve to play it to her because it was so Motown-ish that we were scared she wouldn’t want to go back there,” They’d given the song a real Holland-Dozier-Holland feel but with much more suggestive lyrics, just take a close listen to the second verse which opens with, ‘You make me tremble when your hand moves lower, you taste a little then you swallow slower. Nature has a way of yielding treasure, pleasure made for you, ooh!’ that’s when you realise the whole song is about multiple orgasms. “Once Diana had recorded it, she sat down and heard the playback and realised it was a credible tribute to her past,” Barry explained.

Chain Reaction was not only co-produced by Barry Gibb, he also added backing vocals to give it their trademark sound. To accompany the Supremes’ sound that the Bee Gees had created, the video showed Diana as a sixties recreation of herself in a modern style dance show shot in black and white. The song went to number one giving Diana not only her second solo chart-topper but it came almost 15 years after her first, I’m Still Waiting in 1971. It became Ms Ross’ biggest selling UK single and earned the Gibb’s even more money when it was re-issued in 1993 and went back into the chart at number 20 and then another resurgence when a cover version by Steps took it to number two in 2001. In the UK, it won the Ivor Novello award for most performed song in 1986.

What is hard to understand is why, despite Diana’s popularity in her native land having had 46 hits with the Supremes and 43 solo hits, both her UK number one hits never made any impact over there. I’m Still Waiting stalled at number 63 and Chain Reaction faltered at number 95 then a ‘special new mix’ the following year stiffed at 66. Very odd.

Talking of odd, for those who saw her at the recent Platinum Party at the Palace, why was she so out of tune when she opened her set? I did hear that for those who saw her fiddling around with something by her hip, under her clothes, and wondered what is was, apparently it was her auto tune facility. That might explain it, but it begged the question; why did someone not sort that out before she came on stage and the other question I have is, why didn’t Shirley Bassey close the show instead?

Interestingly, two weeks after the Palace party, a friend of a friend text to say he was in Birmingham watching Diana Ross. He was in the fourth row and said she was brilliant. Mind you, the ticket was £295. All I can say is, thank God my ticket for the Party at the Palace was free!

Faith (George Michael)

George was an exceptional talent who was more than just a singer. When he hit number one in 1987 with A Different Corner it was written in the music press that he was the first solo artist to write, produced and arrange his own number one, actually Stevie Wonder had done it two-and-a-bit years earlier, but hey, George said of that song, “I felt like shit. I went in and recorded exactly the way I felt, and that’s the way it sounds. It was partly Wham! and partly the end of a relationship” Faith was George’s first solo album and Faith, the single, was the second track released from it after I Want your Sex. Arguably, Faith was a much more memorable song.

By the time George came to record Faith he was obviously in a better place because he said of Faith at the time, “It represents the way I feel at the moment. It’s kind of another word for my hope and optimism. You know, faith to me is just really such a strong word and the more I got into the idea of the song being the single, the more I liked the idea of using it as the title track.”

The song is not about having faith in an ongoing relationship but more about what might happen next. Although not necessarily biographical, George sings about one relationship ending of which he was hurt and upset and obviously still loves that person, but on meeting someone new he states, ‘But I gotta think twice before I give my heart away, and I know all the games you play because I played them, too’. He then explains, that if this new relationship is worth pursuing, let me recover – ‘Oh, but I need some time off from that emotion, time to pick my heart up off the floor.’

The song’s intro begins with a church organ which is supposed to denote devotion and was played by Chris Cameron who used a church organ preset on a Yamaha DX7 and then launches into, ‘Well, I guess it would be nice if I could touch your body, I know not everybody has got a body like you’ which is clearly about wanting to get it on. Faith also has a very distinctive guitar style which was played by the Scottish musician Hugh Burns and was modelled on a Bo Diddley style and very much resembles the sound heard on the Crickets’ 1957 track Not Fade Away. George and Hugh worked closely for a long time to get the sound that George wanted and all helped when the engineer on the track, Chris Porter, added stacks of reverb.

The parent album was recorded in two different studios – vocals and some of the tracks were done in Denmark’s Puk Studios which was renowned for its quality equipment and the rest at Sarm West Studios in London, which was where many Wham! tracks were made.

Looking back on the video, George his wearing his then-trade mark leather jacket and playing an electric guitar which, a) he’s not really playing because he can’t play guitar and, b) is not even plugged in. When asked at the time why, his reply was, “Americans, if you stick a guitar on, you’ve got a bigger penis, simple as that.” He was also trying to show a more mature side to his image to try and appeal to a more adult audience rather than the Wham! videos which were appealing to the younger, party-going population. In a 2009 video commentary he revealed, “I was so overly conscious of my image at that age and so insecure that I had developed a costume for real life, which was that. The only thing I added was the pose. So, I knew there was a camp aspect to it. And by then I’d had sex with men, so I was a little less clueless as to how to portray myself.”

The song peaked at number two in the UK behind The Bee Gees’ You Win Again but topped the chart in Belgium, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the Netherlands and America where it was his first solo chart-topper (because Careless Whisper was credited to Wham! featuring George Michael over there).

George’s public life was all about sexuality, relationships, drugs and various other strange behaviours including engaging in a lewd act in a public toilet in California which he later admitted was completely stupid and then made a mockery of it in the video to Outside. Sadly, he’ll also be remembered for crashing his car into a shop window in Hampstead in 2010.

What most of the public won’t know about George was his incredible generosity. He never wanted it to be known what he donated and to whom, but after his death on Christmas Day 2016, it was revealed that he donated millions of pounds to Childline, Macmillan Cancer Support and the Terrence Higgins Trust. It wasn’t just charities and companies, one day he was watching Deal or No Deal and saw a contestant who said she needed £15,000 to fund some IVF treatment. When she didn’t win it on the show, George called the production staff to get her details and donated the money she so desperately needed.

Don’t Forget Me (When I’m Gone) (Glass Tiger)

This week’s suggestion came from Andrew Austin who emailed saying, “How about the band Glass Tiger song Don’t Forget Me When I’m Gone. It’s a great track with big production.” It certainly is Andrew and there are clearly some English influences within this Canadian rock band.

Glass Tiger were formed in Newmarket, Ontario in 1983 and comprised Scottish-born singer/guitarist Alan Frew, guitarist Al Connelly, bass player Wayne Parker, keyboardist Sam Reid and Michael Hanson on drums. Apart from Hanson who was replaced by Chris McNeill in 2003, all the other members are still together almost 40 years later. A great achievement in itself.

They took their name from a phrase used in the sports journalist George Plimpton’s 1966 Paper Lion and were trying to find a record deal. Island records refused to sign them of the basis they thought they sounded too much like U2 and EMI’s Capitol records division were interested in signing Frew as a solo act but not the group, but as Alan Frew recalled, “I think we were the only band at the time that ever played the famous Maple Leaf Gardens unsigned and we opened up for Boy George and Culture Club in front of 20,000 people each night. That was on a Friday and Saturday and on the Monday,  I got the call from Capitol who said, ‘OK if I want the cherries, I’ll have to take the whole fucking pie. Get down here!’ We went down and signed with Capitol.”

Once there they were teamed with producer Jim Vallance who was already working with another Canadian, Bryan Adams. Jim remembered, “I was initially hired by Capitol Records to help with musical arrangements on Glass Tiger’s first album, working with the material they’d already written — but I ended up producing the album and writing a few songs with the band as well. In the spring of 1985 I travelled there and spent a day rehearsing with the band, working on arrangements and suggesting improvements. It was an audition – in other words, the band were auditioning me, trying to determine if we could work together. Explaining how he felt leading up to it, Jim said, “I really wanted the job. I knew I could contribute to the project in a positive way, plus I loved everything about the band: they were good musicians, they had a great image, and they’d already written some very strong songs.  More important, they were young and hungry. They’d worked hard the past few years, writing and rehearsing in various basements and garages, and they were ready and eager to make a record. In mid-1985 three members of the group flew to Vancouver to get working on a hit as instructed by the label’s A&R man Deane Cameron. After Deane passed away in 2019, Vallance said of him, “Deane was a lovely guy, totally dedicated to music, a quintessential ‘record’ man.”

Upon their arrival in Vancouver, Vallance picked them up from the airport, “We hadn’t planned on starting until the next day, but I invited them to my house so we could have a cup of tea, get acquainted, listen to some music and talk about the direction we might take with our song-writing in the week ahead,” he remembered. One of the songs they listened to was the Tears For Fears hit Everybody Wants To Rule The World. “During a quick tour of my studio Sam casually noodled a few notes on one of my keyboards, and the next thing you know we were writing a song! In less than an hour we came up with the beginnings of a very strong idea.  Not bad for the first day … right off the plane. I printed a cassette tape so they could listen to it overnight, and I dropped them off at their hotel. The boys arrived back at my studio the next morning ready to work. That day we managed to substantially complete the idea from the night before, now titled Don’t Forget Me When I’m Gone.

The song combined the shuffle feel of Everybody Wants To Rule The World with a title that was inspired by the recent Simple Minds track Don’t You Forget About Me. “The song sounded every bit a ‘Glass Tiger’ track by the time we completed the demo recording.” Vallance said.

To give the song some extra kudos, Vallance asked Bryan Adams, who was riding high in the charts with his Reckless album, to provide backing vocals which he agreed to but remained uncredited.

As the band were based in Ontario, it was agreed with Deans that the album should be recorded there so Vallance booked his flight. “Don’t Forget Me When I’m Gone is the first track we recorded for the Thin Red Line album,” Vallance explained.  “The recording was begun at Sounds Interchange in Toronto, with Mike Jones engineering. The horns and backing vocals were recorded by Hayward Parrott at McClear Place Studios, Toronto. Further recording, including Alan’s vocal, was done at Le Studio in Morin Heights, Quebec and at my home studio in Vancouver.

Once everything was recorded the band and the producer were very happy with the results and decided to have a listening session with a few members from the record label plus one representative from the label’s US branch. Vallance said, “Everyone was very pleased with what they heard and they expressed confidence that we had the makings of a hit record. ‘Now’, someone said, ‘We just need you to remix the single for the American market’. Huh? I was baffled. The mix sounded great to me. We’d spent countless hours getting it right. What would you like us to do differently?, I asked. ‘It needs to be harder sounding, more edge’, was the reply. In fact, that was the final instruction as everyone headed out the door. Once everyone had left we all sat there, speechless, not sure what to do. The truth is, we loved the mix just the way it was. So, the next morning we sent the record company exactly the same mix they’d heard at the listening session! No change whatsoever, except we wrote ‘American Mix’ on the box. They loved it!

The song went to number 29 in the UK, but did much better in Australia where it got to number nine, even better in the US making number two on Billboard (no doubt the label will claim it’s because of the ‘American Mix’) and number one in Canada. Their next single, Someday, which was recorded at the same session scraped into the lower end of the UK chart, but with their next hit, My Town in 1991, they were back in the top 40 enlisting the help of Rod Stewart who, unlike Bryan Adams, actually got a featuring credit on the label.

In 2012, the band toured Canada with Roxette but they continue to tour and record and their most recent album was 2020’s Songs for a Winter’s Night.

I Don’t Want To Talk About It (Rod Stewart)

This week’s suggestion was purely an album track until the singer pointed out to his record label that it was clearly becoming a crowd favourite and was likely to do well if released as a single. Rod Stewart was a good judge of character when it came to him interpreting other people’s songs and he wasn’t wrong about this one.

The song has a simple message and, as is often the case, when the public can relate to a story, the song is a hit. The song was written by Danny Whitten a Georgia-born musician who was the guitarist in Neil Young’s backing band, Crazy Horse. Nils Lofgren, before joining Bruce Springsteen’s E-Street Band was also a member of Crazy Horse and recalled to Spencer Leigh in our 1000 UK #1 Hits book, “Danny was a very soulful man and a good man and he was the one who got me in Crazy Horse. I loved his song, I Don’t Want To Talk About It, and I think it is one of the greatest ballads ever. It has a very haunting lyric and I put two lines into the song because Danny was so ill when he recorded it. He could still sing and play but he wasn’t bothered with much else. We said, ‘Danny, we’ve got to do this song, it’s a great song’ and he said, ‘It needs a second verse’ and this went on for months. He never could get it together and then we were in the studio and got in an argument, and he said, ‘Okay, well, one of you write it.’ I left the studio and wrote a couple of lines quickly and I said, ‘What about these” and he said, ‘Fine, let’s do it’. Danny and I sat opposite each other with acoustic guitars and Ry Cooder was (sic) playing slide on his lap and it came out beautifully.” The song is a moving story about a man who is so upset and heartbroken that he is unable to bring himself to talk about it and just asking his partner to just listen to my heart.

Whitten was born in 1943 and by his mid-20s he had a terrible drug addiction. He had suffered with rheumatoid arthritis and when he started taking heroin he found that it alleviated his pain and so he became addicted. During the recording of the 1970 album After the Goldrush a number of the musicians were unhappy with Whitten’s drug taking and when they complained to Young, he got rid of them. Whitten’s habit had got so bad that Young had to let him go and therefore never got to perform the song with Crazy Horse. His replacement was George Whitsell.

I Don’t Want To Talk About It opens the second side (the slow side) of Rod Stewart’s 1975 album Atlantic Crossing. Rod had constantly played the song live and at his Christmas 1976 concerts was when he noticed the crowd singing the song and when Rod stopped, the crowd carried on. One year after Atlantic Crossing, Rod’s next album, A Night on the Town was released and Tonight’s the Night was the first single released and peaked at number five in the UK. Two months later it was followed by the number two hit, The Killing of Georgie – an epic six-and-a-half-minute song about a gay friend of Rod’s. He recalled in Mojo in 1995, “The Killing of Georgie was a true story about a gay friend of The Faces. He was especially close to me and Mac (Faces pianist Ian McLagan). But he was knifed or shot, I can’t remember which. That was a song I wrote totally on me own over the chord of open E.”

The third single planned was a cover of Cat Stevens’ First Cut Is The Deepest and Rod’s own Riva label and its management decided, follow the concert reaction, to issue I Don’t Want To Talk About It as a double A side even though the song was two years old. The song had been a Top 20 hit for P.P. Arnold, a former member of Ike and Tina Turner’s Ikettes, in 1967. Pat, or P.P. said in 2003, “Cat Stevens only lived around the corner from Immediate Records. He came in with the song and my record was produced by Mike Hurst from The Springfields. I am certain that I released the first version of the song and not Cat Stevens.” She was right, she recorded it a few days before Cat.

Rod and Riva’s decision  proved to be the right because the song went to number one but did it get there fairly and squarely? Why do you ask that I hear you thinking? The song entered the chart in April 1977 as the UK was approaching the Queen’s Silver Jubilee and the Sex Pistols were about to release God Save The Queen, their anti-royalty song that clearly mocked the monarchy. It had made number one on various music magazine’s own charts. It entered the official singles chart at number 11 on the week Rod was spending his third of four weeks at the summit. Was it going to knock Rod off the following week? No one will ever really know but it did climb to number two and there were many accusations launched that the chart was rigged to avoid much embarrassment on official Jubilee week. The week after that, when Rod tumbled to number two, the Pistols sank to number four and story of Lucille by Kenny Rogers went to the top.

In May 1984, the Yorkshire duo Everything But the Girl launched their career with the song Each and Everyone that just scraped into the top 30. Their next five hit were all low entries and so they decided to try a cover of I Don’t Want To Talk About It and it became an unexpected hit. Ben Watt of EGTG explained in an interview with Q magazine why it was unexpected, “When we did I Don’t Want To Talk About It, we were almost trying to say, ‘F**k you then! We’ll do a cover version, that’s what you really meant. And of course, it went to number three, and completely backfired again!”

Other versions of the song have been recorded by Rita Coolidge, Dina Carroll, Freddie Starr, Robson Green (without Jerome), Michael Ball, Andy Williams, Joe McElderry and Blue. Nils Lofgren also recorded a new version for his 2015 solo album UK2015 Face the Music Tour.

In early 1972, Young recorded a solo track called The Needle and the Damage Done which was written about Whitten’s compulsion but in November the same year, Whitten overdosed on Valium and alcohol and died aged just 29 and never got to know of the success of his song.

Jack & Diane (John Cougar)

This week’s suggestion came in from Mike Grosvenor who said, “Hi Jon, I love story songs and would love to know the story about John Cougar’s Jack and Diane. Are they real people and is it a real story?” Well Mike let’s find out.

The song opens with the line, ‘A little ditty ’bout Jack & Diane’. The dictionary definition of ditty is a short simple song. This is not a short song. Ok, it’s under four minutes, but it tells a story and, when you look into it, it’s not that simple either.

When John J. Mellencamp, as he was born, released this song in 1982, he wasn’t a new kid on the block. He was 31 and of German ancestry. He was also born with spina bifida of which he had surgery as a child to correct the problem. Everything in his life was seemingly early forming his first band, Crepe Soul, when he was just 14 and within a few months of graduating at the age of 18 he married his pregnant girlfriend and became a father before he was 19. In turn, his daughter had a child when she was 18 and thus Mellencamp, by the age of 37, was a grandpa.

Let’s clear up any confusion over his name as it has varied over the years. His birth name is John J. Mellencamp. There was much speculation as to what the J stood for and no-one seemed to know. According to Tony Buechler, the web host of Mellencamp’s own website, who, in turn, has spoken to John’s sister, Janet, and she said, “the J stands for nothing.” Now we know.

In 1974, travelled between his home state of Indiana and New York playing his songs to anyone who would listen and found, along the way, a receptive audience who enjoyed his song writing and storytelling. He then joined MainMan Management run by Tony DeFries, a British manager who had helped David Bowie to stardom, and it was DeFries who suggested he change his name to John Cougar because he thought Mellencamp was too much of a mouthful. Mellencamp wasn’t happy but reluctantly agreed. His first album, Chestnut Street Incident, was released under that new name but failed to excite anyone. In a 2005 interview, Mellencamp said, “That name was put on me by some manager. I went to New York and everybody said, ‘You sound like a hillbilly.’ And I said, ‘Well, I am.’ So that’s where he came up with that name. I was totally unaware of it until it showed up on the album jacket. When I objected to it, he said, ‘Well, either you’re going to go for it, or we’re not going to put the record out.’ So that was what I had to do… but I thought the name was pretty silly.” Over the years he has released various songs under the names, John Cougar and Johnny Cougar as well as John Cougar Mellencamp. Either way, he’s the same person.

His fifth album, American Fool, in 1982, became his breakthrough album. The first single from it, Hurts So Good, went to number two on the Billboard Hot 100 but it was the next release that really made him a household name. “Jack & Diane was originally based on the 1966 Tennessee Williams film Sweet Bird of Youth,” Mellencamp explained, which was about interracial love. When Mellencamp first took it the record company, they weren’t keen on the idea of a song on that subject so instead he altered the song to be about two young teenagers growing up in the Midwest. It wasn’t a song he was particularly keen on saying, “It was a terrible record to make. When I play it on guitar by myself, it sounds great; but I could never get the band to play along with me. That’s why the arrangement’s so weird. Stopping and starting, it’s not very musical.”

Even when Cougar and the album’s producer, Don Gehman, were in the studio they were trying to figure out the right sound especially with the drum part. “That was one of the things that really hung us up,” Gehman explained. “I didn’t know anything about rock & roll drum sounds — I didn’t understand how you even made a gated sound. Still, having originally been managed by David Bowie’s manager Tony DeFries, John knew people within that camp, including Bowie’s guitarist Mick Ronson. So, we asked him to come in for a day and help us with the arrangement. When we explained how we were trying to get a rock sound on the drums, he said, ‘Well, you ought to do a gated echo with a plate.’ I said, ‘What do you mean?’ He said, ‘Make the plate kinda short, put gates on the returns and gate the send,’ and when I did that it was one of those ‘Aha!’ moments — ‘Oh, my God, so this is how you make something sound like it’s getting hit hard.’ What Mick told us was a gift.” Mellencamp gave his view in an interview with Classic Rock magazine, “Mick was very instrumental in helping me arrange that song, as I’d thrown it on the junk heap. Ronson came down and played on three or four tracks and worked on the American Fool record for four or five weeks. All of a sudden, for Jack & Diane, Mick said, ‘you should put baby rattles on there.’ I thought, ‘What the f**k does put baby rattles on the record mean?’ So, he put the percussion on there and then he sang the part ‘let it rock, let it roll’ as a choir-ish-type thing, which had never occurred to me. And that is the part everybody remembers on the song. It was Ronson’s idea.”

Ronson then explained, “You see, one of our models for Jack & Diane was Phil Collins’ In The Air Tonight. John came in one day and, after he sat down and played it, he said, ‘This is what I want to create. I want to have a couple of verses that sound like a little folk song and then I want the big, bombastic entrance of some drums, and we’ll take it to a whole new place.” Mellencamp later added, “the clapping was used only to help keep time and was supposed to be removed in the final mix. However, he chose to leave the clapping in once he realised that the song would not work without it.”

The story is just two teenagers happy to be whiling away the hours Suckin’ on a chili dog outside the Tastee Freez and then Diane losing her virginity in the back of Jack’s car. Jack later suggests they run off to the city to which Diane replies, ‘Baby, you ain’t missin’ nothing. The song’s verses are as catchy and as memorable as the chorus of, ‘Oh yeah, life goes on, long after the thrill of livin’ is gone’

The song’s accompanying video didn’t have the backing of his record label. His record label brought in Jon Roseman Productions to make videos for a couple of other songs scheduled for future release but not for Jack and Diane. In the book I Want My MTV, Paul Flattery, who worked for that production company, explained that Mellencamp made a special request after those videos were completed: “He said, ‘Look, there’s a song on the album the label doesn’t believe in. But I do. Can you do me a favour and save one roll of film, shoot me singing the song, I’ll give you some old photos and stuff and then you cobble it together for me?’

Flattery said, “We stole some editing time in LA. We projected slides on the edit room wall, and we had the tape-op wear white gloves to do the clapping. We didn’t charge John a cent.” Some of Mellencamp’s school pictures and some home movie footage was included in it. “Mellencamp spent a long time crafting this song in an effort to make it a hit. This was part of his plan to become so successful he could ignore critics and tell his record company to stick it.”

At the time of the song’s release, Mellencamp told the L.A. Herald Examiner, “Most people don’t ever reach their goals, but that’s cool, too. Failure’s a part of what you’re all about anyway. Coming to terms with failed expectations is what counts. I try to write about the most insignificant things, really. I mean, someone who picks up a copy of Newsweek, then sits down and writes a song about the troubles in South America — who cares? What’s that song telling us that we don’t already know? Write about something that matters to people, man.” And that, in John’s mind, is what Jack and Diane is about.

In Mellencamp’s eponymous 1998 album there is a track called Eden is Burning in which he references the pair again – the song opens with the line, ‘Diane and Jack went to the movies’.

Up Town Top Ranking (Althea & Donna)

This week’s suggestion was yet another song that was championed by John Peel who played it on his late-night Radio 1 show by accident. When I say by accident, I don’t mean he didn’t realise that he was putting it on the turntable, I mean he did something Paul Burnett (another Radio 1 DJ) often did and that was play the B side by mistake, and from that faux pas, a number one, one hit wonder, was born.

Reggae records that were issued in the UK very often didn’t have an A or a B on the label to indicate which side to play and, additionally, had a completely different act on the flip side. What John Peel meant to play was Calico Suit by the Mighty Two who comprised of producer Joe Gibbs and engineer Errol Thompson. Gibbs was the producer of Up Town Top Ranking (not the often mis-written Uptown Top Ranking) and Errol Thompson was the co-writer alongside the performers Althea Reid and Donna Forrest. Following its airing, Peel was inundated with requests for more information and requests for repeat plays.

Joe Gibbs worked in an electronics store and made his first records, usually with Lee Perry, almost as a hobby at his Retirement Crescent premises. He had UK success in 1969 with The Pioneers’ horse-racing tale, Long Shot Kick De Bucket. When he fell out with Perry, he teamed up with the engineer, Errol Thompson and they became known as The Mighty Two. They made hundreds of reggae records including work with Dennis Brown (Money In My Pocket), Nicky Thomas (Love Of The Common People), Peter Tosh (Maga Dog), Harry J. All Stars (Liquidator), Freddie McGregor, Prince Mohammed and Sly & Robbie.

Althea is originally from Hughenden in St Andrew, and Donna is from the Hope Road area of Kingston, Jamaica which is also home to the Bob Marley museum. The pair, who were school friends, started out singing on a sidewalk in Kingston before they were spotted by original Inner Circle lead singer Jacob Miller who took them to Joe Gibbs’ Studio in nearby Cross Roads to record the song. They were accompanied by Donna’s father who also went on tour with the girls as they were underage at the time.

A Jamaican DJ called Trinity made a record about the pleasures of women called Three Piece Suit An T’ing and Gibbs was looking for a female answer version. Thompson came up with the backing track, which was essentially based on the 1967 Alton Ellis tune I’m Still In Love, and Althea Forest then 17 and Donna Reid then 18, were asked if they could write a response. Once completed the DJ Mikey Dread featured the record on his radio show, Dread At The Controls, and the song took off in Jamaica.

Reggae, as a genre, stemmed from Bluebeat which began in the late fifties. Arguably the first ‘reggae’ song to chart in the UK was Hal Paige and the Whalers’ 1960 minor hit Going Back To My Home Town and the first reggae chart-toppers was Desmond Dekker and the Aces’ Israelites in 1969.

Up Town Top Ranking’s bitchy lyric was in English but the Jamaican patois was as strange as a foreign language to many listeners; ‘See me in me heels an t’ing, Dem check sey we hip an t’ing.’ That added to its mystique and hence, selling-power. The song pokes a little fun at the stricter attitudes of Rastafarianism yet claiming they are ‘strictly roots’ meaning they are still true to their origins. The lyric ‘See me in mi Benz and ting, Drivin’ through Constant Spring’ is a reference to driving in a Merc down Constant Spring, the main thoroughfare in Kingston.

When the song topped the UK chart in January 1978 it ended the reign of Wings’ Christmas nine-week residency Mull of Kintyre and many will be thankful for that. Up Town Top Ranking was not the only song Althea and Donna recorded, some of their others included Gone To Negril, Love One Another, Puppy Dog Song and Ranking Baby all in 1978 but as none charted they remain true one hit wonders. Their only song, however was revived by another one hit wonder female duo, Ali & Frazier, in 1993 where it peaked at number 33. Further cover versions, that failed to chart, were by Black Box Recorder in 1998 and Estelle and Joni Rewind in 2002. it was also sampled by former 5ive member Abs Breen in his 2002 solo hit What You Got.

Althea, who now lives in New York and is a Queens School old girl, and Donna, who now lives in Florida, were the opening act at the One Love Concert in April 1978 and their last major performance in Jamaica was at Rebel Salute in 2018.