February 1st, 2001

Best Singles 1976-2000

(This is the intro to a list I compiled of the best singles since the advent of punk and disco for Uncut – it appeared in February 2001, prior, I should point out, to the publication of Garry Mulholland’s This Is Uncool, which, coincidentally, covers similar terrain)

Back in 1976, almost a quarter of a century after they first started printing the singles charts, the NME polled its readers to determine the 100 greatest 45 rpms of all time. When the votes, dimpled or otherwise, were finally cast, the candidates were duly sifted and the result solemnly declared. And the winner was: “Layla”, by Derek And The Dominoes.

The list as a whole reflected the prejudices of its day – “serious” music was white, guitar-oriented, technically proficient and preferably bearded. Punk, just then coming round the mountain to blast away this complacency like dandruff, couldn’t arrive quickly enough. The NME’s list not only highlights the danger inherent in such exercises of looking extremely silly to posterity but also indicates the extraordinary changes wrought in music over the past quarter of a century.

Punk’s arrival in 1976/77 created a schism in rock history whose impact was barely recognised even as it happened. Whether it was a roar of working class (or should that be art school?) discontent, a Situationist prank with surprisingly long-lasting implications, a “back to basics” after the excessive colonic investigations of prog-rock, the cultural product of a profound sense of boredom, alienation and economic gloom in British society, it transformed everything.

Its simple proposition that “anyone can do it” meant that music was no longer about proficiency but about ideas. All channels were now open – post-modern irony, feminism, agit-pop, multiculturalism, all came bustling through the door, throwing up all kinds of unlikely musical permutations.

1977, however, would be pivotal for another reason – the electrification of dance music. Donna Summer’s brilliant “I Feel Love” introduced the sequencer to disco, while Kraftwerk’s electronic epic 12-inch “Trans-Europe Express” would trigger off an electric storm of chain reactions that would impact on everyone from Bowie to Bambaata.


Just about every great single of the past 25 years has been determined by these two revolutionary occurrences. Punk and electronica have made a melting pot of rock culture, breeding supersonic hybrids, feeding off each other, synthesising, colliding and mutating. Which is where this list comes in – a much-needed celebration of our own, incendiary era. Because in spite of the increasing prevalence of All-Time 100 lists of this type, most of them repeat the same old subtext – that we should cringe in shame and awe at the Grand Old Masters of yesteryear, the Soul Legends, the Rock Behemoths. Hence, an anthology of Beatles singles duly ascends to Number One, a reminder of the days of “Proper” music. This point is irradiated into our psyches by adverts, film and TV soundtracks, all of which are crammed with “classic” retro-pop – and a general culture of retro-chic that reminds us that such “class” ceased to be issued in music after about 1968.

In short, this generation is labouring under an unwarranted musical inferiority complex. Not to denigrate the old masters, or indeed negate the formidable argument put forward in some quarters (including our own Ian MacDonald) that analogue recording methods in the Sixties enabled the singles of those time to “breathe” in the way they no longer can in this digital era. Only a crazed Philistine would argue against the immortality, the unreachable uniqueness of great Sixties music. But since 1976, the emancipating opportunities of new technology, the increasingly rich heritage of past music to feast upon and fuck around with, the continuing loosening and liberalisation of cultural attitudes, and the overall expansion of the universe of ideas and sounds has enabled post-punk generations to produce work which frankly would have done the heads in of the Old Masters, had them curse the mono limitations of their era.

Trouble is, modern music has been the victim of its own staggering eclecticism. The dreary retro-chic of the mid-Nineties was almost a subconscious response to the sheer mass and technoid sampladelic diversity of these sonic times. Too much, the public seemed to say a few years back. “We” just want a common talking point, like in the good old days when it was just The Beatles and The Rolling Stones and “we” all knew where “we” stood. Hence the worst excesses of Britpop (Oasis’s “Wonderwall”) culminating in the timid AOR tunesmithery of the likes of Travis, a return to an agreed-upon sensibleness and again, reflecting a pining for some Tory musical notion of the “classical”, reducing rock from a convulsive, revolutionary plastic art to a cottage craft.

If the singles charts today seem devoid of quality, then it’s not due to a “dearth” of new ideas but, in a complex way, to a surfeit of them which resulted in a relapse into conservatism. Which means practically the only left field incursion into the charts you’ll get nowadays, from all the bubbling babble of possible contenders, is the plodding, emotional sobriety of Coldplay’s “Trouble”, a single guided to pre-eminence by a conspiracy of marketers and Radio 1 playlisters who decided there should be “at least one indie-style” band broken into the charts this year.

And there’s your second problem – the Pyhrric triumph of the science of marketing, into which so much “creative” energy is channelled nowadays. Such wasn’t the case in the immediate aftermath of punk. Then, as Jon Savage put it, “a door opened – briefly.” Record companies, ensure of what the hell was flying around in the air, adopted an “Oh well, I expect you know what you’re doing” attitude towards new acts, an attitude which has always proven fertile in the art v commerce stakes. The single, previously scorned by the likes of Zeppelin, Genesis and Floyd, came into its own. The Buzzcocks, Costello, XTC, Siouxsie, all stormed the ramparts.

And there was a sense of a storm too – you could see the fear in Noel Edmonds’ eyes as he affected a glazed look of forced jollity at these Visigoth-like gatecrashers on TOTP. This was to say nothing of those – and younger readers may find this concept hard to grasp – like Magazine, The Clash and The Gang Of Four who, though offered the chance, refused to go on TOTP simply because it ran counter to their principles and they thought it was shit.

Then came the great wave of avant-Pop in the early Eighties, from ABC to Adam to Simple Minds to The Associates, once-and-forever punks now working in primary colours but informed by a romantic excitement that pop music could be more than just wallpaper but somehow a collective revelation, culminating in the glory that was Frankie. More prosaic but equally vital was the 2-Tone surge, headed by The Specials and Madness, three-minute black and white studies in social realism.

Economic boom years tend to be indifferent pop years and so it proved in the mid-to- late Eighties before the recession-hit early Nineties brought a new crop of disaffected insurgents over the wall – Happy Mondays, The Primals and Stone Roses, ripped to the tits on punk, rave and acid, as well as the likes of Suede, Nirvana, Pearl Jam, The Manics, Dinosaur Jr and Radiohead, each in their own way beneficiaries of the reinvention and resurgence of rock in the late Eighties.

Later came Britpop, with its occasional moments of nation-uniting magnificence such as Pulp’s “Common People”. But this list isn’t merely about the crossover successes. Many of the singles listed here didn’t even chart but rocked the world at a deeper, more seismic level nonetheless, in terms of their power and influence and later reputation – Pere Ubu, Wire, The Fall. Primal Scream’s “Higher And The Sun” failed to breach the top 30 in 1991 but who now remembers the sort of fluff that kept it bay that week – Chesney Hawkes, Beverley Craven, Omar, Sonia, Driza Bone? So what? Even New Order’s “Blue Monday” never made it to the “coveted” Number One spot yet it was the best-selling 12-inch of all time in the long term.

This list is about records that rocked the world not those that popped the world. It is sternly anti-kitsch – no Bee Gees, no Abba, no Duran, no Spice Girls, no George Michael, no Madonna even – and certainly none of that big, boisterous blank Robbie Williams. Drawn as we all increasingly are into the spectacle and gawping vortex of celebrity, you almost have to snap your fingers to remind yourself that for all their zillions, people like Williams Are Not Actually Happening, that their historical impact is, like that of The Osmonds, nil.

This list is about what Did Happen – from the Saints right through the Eminem, the music that left scorch marks, is still smouldering. This is the music that is in danger of being written out of those potted TV retro-histories of pop, in which the Seventies mean Elton John and Queen, the Eighties Live Aid and the Nineties more Elton John and Queen. Of course, as you scan the list you’ll soon be scribbling furiously in the margins the platters we have overlooked here in our high-handed gormlessness. (Wot, no Joey Beltram’s “Energy Flash? No Afghan Whigs’ “Uptown Avondale”? No Village People’s “YMCA?”). Scribble hard – but regard this list as the possible tip of an undoubted iceberg.This is the music of our very own, very recent times and it is Gigantic.

Comments are closed.