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Neal’s Uplifting Anti-Viral Playlist
BY NEAL MARTIN | JANUARY 27, 2021
During the first lockdown, a friend/angel working on the National Health Service frontline asked me to recommend tunes to lift her spirits. I duly offered one song per day on my Facebook page so that everyone could marvel at my terrible taste in music. Given that we are back in lockdown and suffering the January blues, I decided to put my posts together for this article with just a little editing and updating. This list is not to be taken seriously. It’s just a bit of fun, a pick-me-up. You will have your own songs that lift the spirits – give them a listen whenever life gets you down. The playlist is available to stream on Spotify here. Enjoy, stay safe, keep your chin up. We’ll get through this and party like there is a tomorrow.
Song #1 – “Jackie Wilson Said (I’m In Heaven When You Smile)” by Van Morrison (1972)
The opening to Morrison’s sixth album, Saint Dominic’s Preview, was inspired by Wilson’s classic “Reet Petite.” It’s a one-take wonder with just the saxophone dubbed later. Morrison assiduously chose this first take as the final version. It has a magical joie-de-vivre. Dexys Midnight Runners’ cover version is splendid, but it is Morrison’s original that epitomizes how a song can lift the spirits.
Song #2 – “I Believe In Miracles” by The Jackson Sisters (1973)
This anthem incites mayhem and euphoria on the dance floor. The Jackson Sisters are unrelated to Michael and his siblings; they were in fact Lyn, Pat, Rae, Gennie and Jacqueline Jackson, Compton-born but based in Detroit. Bobby Taylor and Mark Capanni penned their signature tune (Capanni released a fine orchestral version in 1974). It packs so much energy and joy into its brief running time, and never lets up until its anthemic chorus, by which time you WILL believe in miracles. Alas, there was no miracle in terms of the pop charts. The song limped to number 72 and belatedly found recognition during the rare groove revival when it was re-released on the Urban label in 1987. If you know this song, you’ll be dancing around your kitchen or office singing at the top of your voice.
Song #3 – “Coming Up” by Paul McCartney (1980)
I loved “Coming Up” from the moment my goggle-eyed nine-year-old self sat watching the multi-Macca video on Top of the Pops. The song was recorded when McCartney was noodling around in his studio in Scotland and tinkering with varispeed vocals, a technique subsequently used by Prince to great effect. In fact, listening to “Coming Up” again, it sounds like a precursor to “Kiss” in terms of the openness and guitar riff. Released in April 1980 as the first single from McCartney II, it’s catchy and funky, full of positive vibes. A reclusive John Lennon heard it with envy, and his competitive spirit compelled him back to the studio to record Double Fantasy.
Song #4 – “Groove Is In The Heart” by Deee-lite (1990)
It’s 1990 and there’s only one song you want to hear: “Groove Is In The Heart,” built around a Herbie Hancock sample and featuring additional vocals by Bootsy Collins and a rap courtesy of A Tribe Called Quest’s Q-Tip. It’s impossible to listen to this guaranteed floor-filler without a stupid grin on your face. I had a thing for singer Lady Miss Kier, who basically gave Kylie her look once she had escaped Stock Aitken Waterman’s clutches. The most frightening thing about “Groove Is In The Heart” is that it was recorded over three decades ago. I wonder what Deee-lite are doing now.
Song #5 – “Fight For Your Right (To Party)” by the Beastie Boys (1987)
If I wanted to be cool, I would have chosen something from Paul’s Boutique or Ill Communication, but this absolute banger from the late Adam “MCA” Yauch, Ad-Rock and Mike D conjures such fond memories. It is just as important as “Walk This Way” in terms of joining rap with rock, its influence overlooked by the surrounding controversy. How do you reconcile this puerile, misogynistic incarnation with the critically acclaimed, ultra-hip, erudite and campaigning artists they became? Looking at the video again, it is amazingly un-PC, but bloody hell, they had fun, plus I never noticed Thom Yorke emerging from the toilets at around 2m32s in the promo. Once we are through this crisis, I imagine celebrations will resemble this party – the only difference being we will all wash our hands afterward.
Song #6 – “Wired For Sound” by Cliff Richard (1982)
No matter how cool your musical tastes, the fact is that Cliff Richard was once hip. Despite saccharine ballads, odes to God and clogging up the Christmas charts with Mistletoe and Wine, in the late 1970s/early 1980s, Britain’s answer to Elvis released a cluster of solid gold 45s that sound even better now, from the poignant “We Don’t Talk Anymore” to the rock-tastic “Devil Woman” and “Carrie,” that would comfortably sit on any prime Steely Dan album. “Wired For Sound” is the catchiest and happiest of them all. The video is magnificent and kitsch. Clad in leather (C&A?) and cool shaded glasses, disco Cliff dons his Sony Walkman and desperately tries not to fall flat on his face as he roller-skates through the mean streets of the Milton Keynes shopping center, protected by his gang of rainbow-colored spandex-clad dancers. I wouldn’t have liked to meet Milton Keynes‘s answer to The Crips on a dark night. Sure, Ian Curtis had his funny dancing, but have you seen a Joy Division video with the entire band on roller skates? No. That’s why Cliff was cooler. “Power from the needle to the plastic, AM FM I feel so ecstatic” – profound lyrics worthy of Dylan. I love this song. You love this song.
Song #7 – “Lust For Life” by Iggy Pop (1977)
Iggy Pop and Cliff Richard have little in common musically. I suspect that over the years, Iggy has probably taken more drugs than Cliff; but then again, Cliff has had more Christmas number ones. Song #7 marks a handbrake turn as we go hands-in-air bonkers to the pounding “Lust For Life.” Now synonymous with the film Trainspotting, the song was a co-write with David Bowie for Iggy’s second solo album, recorded at Hansa Studios in Berlin and released in August 1977. The famous drumbeat ramps up anticipation before Iggy’s ad-libbed lyrics, apparently inspired by the Morse code opening of the American Forces Network News that he heard while waiting to watch Starsky & Hutch. Take a listen to the bass line of “You Can’t Hurry Love” by The Supremes. Similar, eh?
Song #8 – “That’s Enough” by Roscoe Robinson (1965)
Roscoe who? Well, listen to “That’s Enough,” because it’s 168 seconds of positivity bursting at the seams, and that’s what we need right now. Robinson is a gospel singer born in 1928 in Arkansas and still going strong today. He sang in top gospel groups such as The Five Trumpets and the Fairfield Four in the 1950s, introduced Bobby Womack to Sam Cooke, worked at the legendary FAME studios, and intermittently still sings with the Blind Boys of Alabama. He enjoyed two minor hits in the 1960s. “That’s Enough” was released in 1965 on Gerri Records, only denting the charts when it was re-released the following year. It languished in relative obscurity before being picked up my DJs on the Northern Soul circuit, which is why the original 45 costs a small fortune. Why do I love this so much? Purity. Purity in terms of the musical arrangement: the drum licks, the guitar riff, the backing singers and those horns, so clear and bright; purity in Robinson’s vocals, where every word is sung so sincerely; purity in the message. Robinson doesn’t need material things. He just wants your love and your hand in marriage, preferably now and not in June. And that’s enough.
Song #9 – “Love Shack” by the B-52s (1989)
During my years manning the wheels of steel, one song was guaranteed to pack a dance floor. I can’t think of anything sunnier, zanier or more uplifting than “Love Shack.” Nobody with a pulse is able to resist its almost childish charm, the adult subtext overlooked as we all join in that chorus. Written by founder Fred Schneider, it was inspired by a rundown bar-cum-disco outside the band’s hometown of Athens, Georgia called the Hawaiian Ha-Le. Everybody would love to be at a B-52s party, which sounds about as much fun as you can have while keeping your clothes on. “Love Shack” is the most powerful antidote to the pandemic blues out there at the moment.
Song #10 – “Theme from S’Express” by S’Express (1988)
It is 1988 and kids are being corrupted by a new kind of dance music of squelchy, hypnotic beats. Acid house had the impact of punk, uniting an entire nation’s youth, irrespective of background, sex, class or musical taste, into one flailing mass of hands-aloft party animals dancing through the night in sweaty smiley-face t-shirts and goofy grins. I loved every minute of it. But the truth is that most acid house dated quickly. When was the last time you sat down to listen to it all night? But “Theme from S’Express” still sounds fantastic, even if purists might argue it lacks the authenticity of, say, Phuture or Mr. Fingers. Perhaps because of its commercial success, DJ Mark Moore never received due respect, even though he captured the zeitgeist and oversaw a song that still makes me grin from ear to ear.
Song #11 – “Lovely Day” by Bill Withers (1977)
Bill Withers made his craft seem effortless. The son of a coal miner, he was a working-class man whose career didn’t kick off until he was in his 30s, after nine years in the US Army. His debut album Just As I Am was recorded between shifts at work. (Imagine laying down “Ain’t No Sunshine” and then going back to the office.) Withers released several great albums throughout that decade before walking away from the music industry in 1985. “Lovely Day” was the standout from his 1977 album Menagerie and famously contains one of the longest sustained notes on record, at 18 seconds. Haven’t we all tried to replicate it while singing along in the car or in the shower? This is just a gorgeous, simple, lilting, carefree tune that makes you exhale and think, yeah, it’s gonna be a lovely day.
Song #12 – “Movin’ On Up” by Primal Scream (1990)
I was grabbing a cheeky pint at the crowded bar while waiting for Primal Scream to go on stage when in the corner of my eye, I noticed a gaunt, wiry man in a retro Sixties shirt doing likewise. To my surprise, it was lead singer Bobby Gillespie. I say “surprised” because his band was on stage and had already launched into the opening guitar riff of “Rocks.” Should I tap him on the shoulder and say, “Mr. Gillespie. I believe you might be needed on stage”? No need. He downed the pint, nonchalantly sashayed through the crowd and grabbed the microphone at the precise nanosecond of the opening line. “Movin’ On Up” is one of many highlights of 1991’s epochal Screamadelica, produced by the legendary Jimmy Miller and lifted by the late Denise Johnson’s powerful backing vocals. Just like “Rocks,” “Movin’ On Up” is the best Rolling Stones song that Jagger/Richards never wrote.
Song #13 – “Stand On The Word” by The Joubert Singers (1982)
“Stand On The Word” is a prime slice of uplifting gospel that gets your feet moving. In 1982, Minister of Music Phyllis McKoy Joubert assembled children at the First Baptist Church in New York and baptized them the Celestial Choir. “Stand On The Word” was the first track recorded for their privately funded album Somebody Prayed For This and would have languished in obscurity had legendary DJ Larry Levan not started spinning it at the Paradise nightclub. I love its slight amateurishness. Some of the children are just a little off-key, making it less polished, but more authentic. This takes you straight into the pews. If you haven’t heard this before, give it a play. Raise your hands in the air.
Song #14 – “Tender” by Blur (1999)
Let’s continue looking heavenward with gospel dressed up in indie garb. It is astonishing to consider Damon Albarn’s output over the years, not just in Blur and Gorillaz, but in numerous side projects as well. “Tender” was released in 1999 and reached number two in the UK charts, kept off the top by Britney’s all-conquering “...Baby One More Time.” In some ways, “Tender” does not belong on this uplifting playlist because it has a downbeat inspiration: the breakup between Albarn and his girlfriend Justine Frischmann from Elastica, who apparently cried when she first heard it. But when the London Gospel Community Choir comes in with that repeated refrain “Come on, come on, come on... Get through it,” that’s probably the best sentiment for these times.
Song #15 – “I Say A Little Prayer” (Live on the This Is Tom Jones show) by Aretha Franklin (1970)
The greatest singer that ever lived, interpreting one of the greatest songs of modern times: Aretha Franklin’s take on “I Say A Little Prayer.” Seek out her live version on the This Is Tom Jones show broadcast in the United States in October 1970. Why is this an amazing performance?
1) That voice. Nothing surpasses Aretha Franklin. She doesn’t even have to sing all the words, dropping out of the chorus giving space to the backing singers, swooping in when necessary to make the song soar to the heavens. I mean, that “Wooooah” during the chorus never ceases to give me goosebumps. She makes it look so effortless.
2) The look. Had Aretha Franklin ever looked more beautiful and iridescent than here? All that silvery bling and that cool-as-a-cucumber hat she’s wearing. There’s a glow about her, maybe because she was pregnant at the time. She looks sassy, maybe even a bit scary, yet the song and its lyrics make her vulnerable.
3) The arrangement. This is the best version of a genius song written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David for Dionne Warwick in 1968. Presumably there was a backing band off camera, but whoever was in charge did an amazing job, toughening up the soulful recorded version to give it a showier, harder edge – maybe just a hint of Sly and the Family Stone? Listen to the incredible bass fills in the chorus. I’ve tried to see if this version was ever committed to vinyl, but no joy.
4) Because I said so.
Song #16 – “Ain’t Got No, I Got Life” by Nina Simone (1968)
The only singer worthy of following the Queen of Soul is Miss Simone. No other singer had a voice that communicated sadness or anger with such intensity and vulnerability. Aretha took you to the heavens; Nina made you know how it feels to hurt. She recorded countless magnificent songs, but her canon of work contains few that I would call happy. But the second half of one of her most famous covers, “Ain’t Got No, I Got Life,” is totally uplifting. As the title suggests, it was a medley of two songs from the musical Hair, and it brought Simone to the attention of a much wider audience than jazz nerds. From its opening refrain, the melody jams itself inside your head, but for me it is the lyrics that stand out. Check out this YouTube clip of Simone playing live back in 1968. She is mesmerizing, bringing her audience down as, line by line, she rues what she “ain’t got,” which is just about everything. Then a subtle key change and a rare sighting of Simone almost breaking into a smile as she pounds the piano, listing what she does have: head, ears, nose, smile, chin, boobies, sex, soul, hands, legs, toes and blood in that order, until the last two, which are most apt during lockdown. She’s got “freedom”... hmm, well, we don’t really have that at this moment. “I got life.” As long as our bodies are ticking over, then that’s something to keep hold of and cherish.
Song #17 – “Baggy Trousers” by Madness (1980)
Madness are so underrated. Unlike the po-faced The Specials, they mucked around in their iconic videos, and they never quite released a classic album. But as a singles band they were unbeatable, releasing one gem after another from the two-tone explosion through to the mid-1980s, when they all grew up. Released in September 1980, “Baggy Trousers” reached number three on the UK charts. It is about as much fun you can have squeezed into less than three minutes, that infectious melody and ska beat enticing you to pogo around your kitchen; it also boasted brilliant lyrics and a memorable video. There are lots of serious, intellectual songs about the frivolity of being a young rascal, not least the contemporaneous “Another Brick In The Wall.” But Pink Floyd’s video contained frightening animations of kids being fed into a mincer and did not feature a saxophone player flying over a muddy sports field.
Song #18 – “You Get What You Give” by New Radicals (1998)
A genuine one-hit wonder, the mighty “You Get What You Give” was released at the tail end of 1998. New Radicals was a moniker for songwriter and singer Gregg Alexander. The song is as catchy as hell and brims with pent-up youthful abandon, so much that Alexander could never top it and returned behind the scenes, later winning a Grammy. The entire song is one joyful major chord that never takes its foot off the positivity accelerator, the kind of track that just makes you want to jump up and down rather than dance. The lyrics tick all the uplifting boxes and are particularly memorable for the impudent dissing of celebrities: Beck and Hanson, Courtney Love and Marilyn Manson. Apparently, it was nothing personal; Alexander apologized to Beck when they bumped into each other in a supermarket. As the song goes: “This world is gonna pull through/Don’t give up/You’ve got a reason to live.”
Song #19 – “Ace of Spades” by Motörhead (1980)
The problem with heavy metal is that there are few uplifting and positive songs; that’s not what it’s about. But on second thought, the energy rush of a razor-sharp thrashing guitar riff gives you an adrenaline rush, and a bit of head-banging after your breakfast shakes the cobwebs away. This is the greatest heavy metal song by the greatest band. The Steve Miller Band picked “The Joker” but Lemmy chose the “Ace of Spades.” The result is this incendiary, take-no-prisoners thrash anthem that bestrode the charts at a pitiful number 15 in November 1980. Pah – it deserved to be Christmas number one! I must have seen Motörhead on Top of the Pops at the time, but the performance indelibly stuck in my mind is their guest spot on the famous “University Challenge” episode of The Young Ones. Lemmy, Phil “Filthy Animal” Taylor and “Fast” Eddie Clarke are no longer with us, but their music, especially “Ace of Spades,” will rock forever.
Song #20 – “It’s Alright” by Sterling Void & Paris Brightledge (1987)
In an alternate COVID-free universe, we would be limbering up for weekends making shapes on the dance floor. Song #20 is for all those “cheesy Quavers” out there. Early Chicago/Detroit house music spawned a cluster of astonishing, 24-carat classics that, Inner City aside, were never really commercially successful at the time. Now they are revered by an entire generation whose lives were changed by anthems like this. Several seminal early house tracks merit inclusion, but I chose this one because it is the most hopeful. Those that yelled “TUUUUNNNNNE!!!” are doubtless getting misty-eyed recalling how they danced all night like a saucer-eyed lunatic at some underground club, experiencing a sense of togetherness that they have never felt since. They were the happiest, most carefree days of your life. “It’s Alright” was first released in 1987 on the seminal DJ International label and produced by Marshall Jefferson, whose mark is all over this record in that simple piano riff and killer bass line. Sterling Void was the moniker for composer Duane Pelt, and Brightledge wrote and sang the lyrics. The vocals, dated but poignant, really lift the song, delivered with unshakable gospel-like belief, like all great Chicago house. “It’s Alright” is both uplifting and optimistic, but tinged with sadness, and this is what gives it emotional heft. The sentiment remains stronger than ever. Things are shit right now, but it will be all right. And yes, as we have seen, the music plays on and on and on and on, forever.
Song #21 – “Superstition” - Stevie Wonder (live on Sesame Street) (1973)
In the early 1970s, while kids in the UK were fathoming what Bod was all about, youngsters on the other side of the Atlantic were having their minds blown by a legend at the peak of his God-given powers, backed by a crack team of über-talented musicians performing one of the funkiest songs ever. Click here to see for yourself. The date is April 12, 1973, and Stevie Wonder is living up to his made-up surname, churning out one classic after another. A multi-instrumentalist who lays down all the parts to his songs, he has often invited guitarists to add their own fretwork. “Superstition” was a collaboration between Wonder and Jeff Beck, whose overlooked take was supposed to be released first, but Motown pushed forward Wonder’s version to promote Talking Book. Wonder was gigging in New York when he was invited onto Sesame Street, and he appeared in sketches throughout the show with Grover, Big Bird et al. The high point is this stellar performance, where he made no compromise for a kids’ show, extending it to a six-and-a-half-minute electrifying jam with ad libs and a false ending. Even if you’ve heard it a million times, listen to this arguably definitive take. This raw performance gives the song a slightly harder edge, especially the rhythm guitar and horn section. The band are la crème de la crème of musicians, including a young Ray Parker Jr., but notice how they have to really concentrate to keep this technically difficult song so tight. Only toward the end do they begin to loosen up. Wonder looks so effortlessly cool behind his Hohner Clavinet, and I love the joy in his face when he chants “Sesame Street.” Kudos to the kid up on the balcony who completely loses his shit (as I would have done). Best TV live performance of all time? Probably. Right, now back to Bod, who, fair enough, admittedly did have her own funky theme.
Song #22 – “In Between Days” by The Cure (1985)
In 1985, Morrissey got on the phone to Johnny Marr and said, “Johnny, old bean. Have you heard that new song by The Cure? They’ve gone and stolen our guitar riff! The cads! Go and get it back so that I can pen some proper lyrics to it. Chop chop.” Marr must have listened to “In Between Days” in envy, not just because of its insane catchiness, but because the person who wrote it is an actual Smith. The Cure are often seen as a morose band due to their Goth look and albums like Pornography, whose opening line is “It doesn’t matter if we all die.” (Well, it does, Robert, especially at the moment.) However, The Cure penned many funny, uplifting and catchy songs: “The Lovecats,” “The Caterpillar,” “Hot Hot Hot!!!” and most famously, “Friday I’m In Love.” The genius of Robert Smith is his switching from dark to light in the blink of heavily mascaraed eye. As soon as you hear that frantic, almost flamenco acoustic guitar and New Order–inspired bass line, you’re drawn into Smith’s world and you are dancing away, oblivious to the lyrics about age and loss. Death is mentioned in the second line. Whatever. “In Between Days” sounds so joyful that it had to be included.
Song #23 – “Yes” by McAlmont & Butler (1995)
What could be more positive than a song simply called “Yes”? Britpop produced a raft of timeless songs and this is among the best and certainly most grandiose. David McAlmont had been part of an early Nineties duo called Thieves that achieved modest success. Bernard Butler had a higher profile as lead guitarist for Suede, his relationship with frontman Brett Anderson dissolving acrimoniously during the recording of their second album. McAlmont also fell out with his bandmate, so there was a meeting of minds in that respect. Butler wrote this song to convey his newfound freedom after leaving Suede, so it’s a bit of a kiss-off. Having met McAlmont at the Jazz Cafe in Camden, north London, Butler asked him to sing the first verse of his embryonic new solo song, and it developed from there. The duo’s debut was released in May 1995, a perfect synergy of indie guitar, Phil Spector–like strings and McAlmont’s soaring falsetto. The incendiary live performance on Later… with Jools Holland showcases its grandiosity even better than the recorded version (click here and see how they throw everything at it except the kitchen sink). Yes, you will feel better after listening to this song.
Song #24 – "September" by Earth, Wind & Fire (1978)
After Professor Witty’s depressing news conference yesterday, where he forewarned that normality will not return for approximately forever, we need a tune with maximum uplift potential. We need D.I.S.C.O. We need Earth, Wind & Fire. We need “September” because in my head, that’s the month when mentally I’m hoping we are inching back to the new normal. [Post-script: I almost did until the second wave stuck.] It will be 21 September according to Earth Wind & Fire. Set your watches. They know. It’s remiss of me that thus far this playlist has overlooked disco because of all musical genres, it contains more soul-lifting, life-affirming, upbeat songs than any other. September is one of those catchy, ubiquitous songs that everybody knows whether they like it or not. It was written by guitarist Al McKay, lead vocalist Maurice White and songwriter Allee Willis, then a struggling songwriter hired to assist with the group’s album. In an interview, he recalled their first meeting: "As I open the door, they had just written the intro to “September” and I just thought, “Dear God, let this be what they want me to write” because it was obviously the happiest-sounding song in the world." The only part he was not happy with was the chorus’s nonsensical “ba-dee-ya” lyric and he begged White to change it. White refused, thankfully, because who gives a shit when you have a mighty groove like that. If this song does not put a spring in your step, nothing will. C’mon Professor Witty, put your calculator down and let’s boogie!
Song #25 – “Uncertain Smile” by The The (1983)
The maverick genius Matt Johnson records under the search-engine-unfriendly name The The, and his album Soul Mining contained two fabulous, uncharacteristically upbeat songs: “This Is The Day” and “Uncertain Smile.” I chose the latter because a) it’s ace b) it sounds happy even if the lyrical theme is not, and c) it has that Jools Holland piano solo. Johnson strums away for the first three minutes before letting Holland steal the show with an exhilarating boogie-woogie solo, his runs up and down the keyboard taking you higher and higher until he runs out of keys. I never realized that it’s actually two takes glued together, which may be why when Holland performed it with Johnson on an early episode of Later… with Jools Holland, he couldn’t quite replicate the magic of the studio recording. If you’ve never heard it before, then sit back and enjoy six-and-a-bit minutes of brilliance.
Song #26 – “Alphabet Street” by Prince (1988)
I first saw the video for “Alphabet Street” on The Chart Show in March 1988, a last-minute addition as the credits rolled. I was still digesting Prince’s magnum opus, Sign o’ the Times, and here he was, back again with another killer tune that sounded like nothing else. For this Prince fanatic, “Alphabet Street” marks the end of Prince as an untouchable artist. He never lost his God-given talent; it’s just that henceforth he could no longer compete with his former self. “Alphabet Street” reminds me of some of the happiest times of my life as a naïve, know-it-all teenager living for the weekend, cheap cider and illicit fun. I can’t hear this song without being transported back to those times.
Song #27 – “Rock Me Amadeus” by Falco (1986)
Prince was a cool dude, but not as cool as Falco, who, lest we forget, remains the only singer of German native tongue to top the charts on both sides of the Atlantic, with the unforgettable (whether you like it or not) “Rock Me Amadeus.” Can you think of another song as European, as ludicrous but as brilliant as his homage to Wolfgang M? You loved this song back then, but you were too embarrassed to tell anyone. Now I’m giving you an excuse to come clean to your loved one and confess your guilty pleasure. I took the O-Level German exam and subsequently forgot all the vocabulary – except for the lyrics to “Rock Me Amadeus.” Then again, what else do you need? I love the video. I love Falco’s perfectly synchronized exit from his carriage into what is presumably the ambassador’s ball, full of flamboyant rococo-dressed aristocrats in powdered wigs and, God knows why, a bunch of smelly Hells Angels. Maximum camp. Falco was actually an Austrian named Johann Hölzel. A philanderer who developed an acute drinking problem, he was said to have had an erratic personality, and he died young in a car crash in 1998 on the cusp of a comeback. So his life story is more rock star than most. “Rock Me Amadeus” still sounds as absurd, catchy and fun as ever, and it makes me smile whenever I hear it. “C-c-come on rock me Amadeus.”
Song #28 – “Good Fortune” by PJ Harvey (2000)
Not sure if there is some ancient bylaw that prevents me from following Falco with PJ Harvey, but why not? If it manifests good vibes, it’s in, and “Good Fortune” is one of the most feel-good songs in recent years. Much of Polly Harvey’s oeuvre dwells on dark matters, stuff like murder, the futility of war and female genitalia, though in real life Harvey always comes across like a funny Dorset girl who happens to be amazingly talented. Her fifth album, Stories From The City, Stories From the Sea is possibly her finest and definitely the sunniest. In an interview with Q magazine she said, “I want this album to sing and fly and be full of reverb and lush layers of melody. I want it to be my beautiful, sumptuous, lovely piece of work." Lead single “Good Fortune” perfectly encapsulates that. Harvey sings freely without a care in the world, living in the moment, totally in love as all her bad fortune finally slips away. That sentiment is perfectly captured in Sophie Muller’s video, which features Harvey walking around London at night as if she’s just exited a nightclub slightly tipsy, sunglasses on for no reason, hands in the air, swinging around lampposts and twirling her handbag around her head, always with a grin on her face.
Song #29 – “Your Disco Needs You” by Kylie Minogue (2000)
One artist has released more uplifting, life-affirming songs than any other: Kylie Minogue. The pint-sized Neighbours actor launched her singing career under Stock Aitken Waterman with the irresistibly catchy “I Should Be So Lucky,” since which she has become a national treasure and released a slew of obvious candidates for this playlist: “Spinning Around,” “Better The Devil You Know” and “Step Back In Time.” Written by Guy Chambers, Robbie Williams and Minogue, the epic “Your Disco Needs You” was never released as a single, a travesty that prompted fans to protest outside Minogue’s record company. Years later, the singer herself still rues that fact and recently re-released the song to promote her greatest hits package (alas, in inferior remixed form). It welds a Seventies four-to-the-floor disco beat with dramatic Phil Spector–like production, a full male choir, a memorable call-to-arms chorus and a fiery speech (in French). It’s an unapologetically over-the-top, camp disco anthem par excellence. If this doesn’t put a smile on your face, nothing will.
Song #30 – “Young Americans” by David Bowie (1974)
Writing this on the fifth anniversary of his death, I still find it incomprehensible that the man born David Jones is no longer with us. He was Major Tom, Aladdin Sane, Ziggy Stardust, for God’s sake – immortals all. Bowie’s passing in January 2016 meant that mankind lost its protective spirit, its guardian angel. At least we can still enjoy his unparalleled musical legacy, though choosing an uplifting song was not as easy as expected, since his music tends toward the dark and avant-garde. The second side of Low? Pass the Valium. Ashes to Ashes? That’s not going to start your day with a grin. Thankfully, there are a cluster of songs worthy of this playlist: “Modern Love,” whose opening couplet “I don’t want to go out/I just want to stay in” is most apt; “Heroes” because it mentions dolphins and they are eternally happy; “Rebel Rebel” for that guitar riff; “Starman” for its uplifting chorus and inventing man-to-man love on teatime Top of the Pops; “The Laughing Gnome” because... well, maybe not. There are many golden periods to choose from, but I’ve plumped for a Thin White Duke classic: the fabulous “Young Americans.” It’s funky. It’s soulful. It has a young Luther Vandross on backing vocals. It puts a skip in your step. It’s Bowie, FFS.
Song #31 – “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” by The Beach Boys (1966)
Wouldn’t it be nice... to meet your friends again, go to a crazy house party, dance all night long, idle hours away in a pub, catch a train, fly to Paris for the weekend, go swimming, enjoy coffee and cake in your local café, shake hands, hug someone, get a haircut, drive to a scenic spot and watch the sunset, tune in to the Olympics, send the kids off to school and understand their homework, bump into someone without considering the consequences, buy yeast, play tag in a park, gossip around the water cooler, buy fresh vegetables in a busy market, not wear a mask, eat at a posh restaurant, enjoy a night out at the theatre, go shopping, plan a summer holiday, enjoy a proper weekend, pay NHS nurses and carers a decent salary, go back to our old lives, not worry about tomorrow and roll out vaccines as quick as possible.
Song #32 – “Perfect Kiss” (Original Twelve-Inch Version) by New Order (1985)
Joy Division never lived up to their name. Ian Curtis wrote brilliant but miserable songs that turned your smile upside down, and they belong on another playlist. As New Order rose from the ashes of Curtis’s suicide, they embraced synths and the metronomic beats of New York clubs. They became less morose and emerged as one of the most influential bands of the decade. Their songs never lost that dark undercurrent, but “Perfect Kiss” bursts with positive vibes. It is the greatest twelve-inch ever. Period. I am pedantic about the mix. The version on the “Substance” CD lopped off a crucial 44 seconds, and annoyingly, this full version is not available on streaming services. Fortunately, the original twelve-inch mix is on YouTube (as well as a fabulous studio live version directed by future Silence of the Lambs director Jonathan Demme). “Perfect Kiss” begins with that tinny synth pattern on a Roland SBX-80 that temporally nails it to the mid-Eighties, before Peter Hook delivers one almighty bass guitar riff from the top his fret-board. The actual song is over halfway through the nine-minute running time. The second half begins with stripped-down hypnotic percussion (with added cowbell) before delivering, to use Hook’s words, a “sonic assault” of three climaxes that take the listener higher and higher, finally collapsing into the sound of a bleating sheep. Now regarded as a timeless classic, “Perfect Kiss” reached a pathetic 46 in the UK charts. Did people have no taste back then?
Song #33 – “Cheek To Cheek” by Louis Armstrong & Ella Fitzgerald (1956)
Social distancing, eh? I can’t remember what it’s like to be within touching distance of a stranger. If an unknown person enters my ambit, a red alert goes off in my head and I presume the first symptoms of COVID-19 are minutes away. With that in mind, here are two titans of the 20th century dueting to Irving Berlin’s timeless “Cheek To Cheek,” composed in 1935 for the film Top Hat, where dapper Fred Astaire sang with Ginger Rogers. I prefer this version, which appeared on 1956’s Louis and Ella album. By the end the song, you’ll forget all your worries and you’ll be in heaven... even if just for a moment.
Song #34 – “Just Can’t Get Enough” by Depeche Mode (1981)
“Just Can’t Get Enough” was Basildon’s finest musical export’s third single from debut album Speak and Spell in September 1981. It remains their most upbeat and joyful song and the last written by Vince Clarke before he quit to form Yazoo and then Erasure. After Clarke’s departure, DM went over to the dark side and became even more awesome as Martin Gore stepped up as chief songsmith, started wearing a leather skirt and wrote songs about teenage suicide, sadomasochism and hard drugs. Unfortunately, lead singer Dave Gahan got addicted to crack cocaine, and his heart stopped for a couple minutes after he overdosed in 1996, a far cry from the bushy-tailed teenager who looked as if he was playing truant to perform this song on kids’ TV. Sure, it sounds a little thin and tinny compared to their later gothic masterpieces, but it has infectious naivety and its melody will ricochet inside your head for the rest of today.
Song #35 – “Theme from Starsky & Hutch (Funky People Mix)” by The James Taylor Quartet (1988)
The sound of a Hammond organ, eh? Can’t beat it. James Taylor Quartet’s cover of the famous Seventies cop show theme was always spun at some point during my clubbing days and unfailingly caused mayhem on the dance floor. “JTQ” formed in 1987 after mod legends The Prisoners split. Founder and keyboardist James Taylor took his Hammond with him and started his new group, becoming a pioneer of the nascent “acid jazz” scene that was full of groovy hipsters, plus me. Released on the Urban Acid Jazz label in 1988, their signature tune recruited two members of The JB’s, Fred Wesley on trombone and Pee Wee Ellis on saxophone, both contributing scintillating solos on the extended version. But it’s Taylor’s keyboard work on his trusty Hammond B3 that gives this song its energy and momentum, fusing R&B, soul, funk and police sirens in one joyful retro-tinged cacophony.
Song #36 – “She Loves You” by The Beatles (1963)
No song in the history of modern music has given more pleasure to more people than this. I was tempted by The Beatles’ late-period masterpieces: “Penny Lane,” “Here Comes The Sun,” “Got To Get You Into My Life,” “Lady Madonna,” etc. But I plumped for this obvious choice because, apart from its brilliance and youthful simplicity, it kick-started Beatlemania and therefore the Sixties. It was the catalyst for a seismic shift in culture. Written by Lennon and McCartney in a hotel in Newcastle following a gig at the Majestic Ballroom, “She Loves You” was recorded at Abbey Road over some five hours, including the B-side, five days later. Released on August 23, 1963, it topped the charts and to date remains the Fab Four’s biggest-selling single. The only person who had any complaint was McCartney’s grammatically punctilious father, who disapproved of the chorus’s anthemic “Yeah, yeah, yeah” instead of “Yes, yes, yes.” Wouldn’t have sounded quite the same, would it? You’ve heard “She Loves You” a zillion times before; listen to it again. You’ll still find yourself singing along with a Cheshire cat grin on your face.
Song #37 – “Tutti Frutti” by Little Richard (1955)
In 2020, Richard Wayne Penniman applied his makeup and combed his outrageous bouffant for the last time. I discovered “Tutti Frutti” on a BBC series called The Rock ’n’ Roll Years in the mid-Eighties. Its immortal “A-wop-bop-a-loo-bop-a-wop-bam-boom” is part of rock ’n’ roll’s DNA, so meaningless that you can interpret it any way you want. The sight of a gay black man letting rip with one leg bashing the top end of his piano is as outrageous now as it was back then. And that voice... Microphones could barely cope. The song was written in September 1955 during a lull in a long recording session when Little Richard began playing a song with ribald lyrics: “Tutti frutti, good booty/If it's tight, it's all right/And if it's greasy, it makes it easy.” Shocking! Dorothy LaBostrie rewrote the smutty lyrics and later claimed to have composed the entire song. It became a huge hit and a cornerstone of rock ’n’ roll, covered by Elvis and a mainstay of The Beatles’ set at The Cavern. “Tutti Frutti” has lost none of its visceral energy over the last 65 years and still has the power to make you jump up and down and shout “Woooh” so loud it wakes up the neighbors. Little Richard isn’t resting in peace... he’s out causing mayhem somewhere.
Song #38 – “Bad Boys” by Wham! (1983)
George Michael craved acceptance as a serious artist. After breaking up Wham!, he was determined to bury the candyfloss pop that brought him fame and fortune. He wanted to be seen as a soul singer like Otis Redding or Al Green. He was undoubtedly born with the voice; see how he stole the show with his note-perfect rendition of “Save Me” at the Freddie Mercury tribute concert in 1992. (I saw him in concert two years earlier and sat next to ice-skaters Torvill and Dean, who seemed just as peeved that no Wham! songs were played.) I have always loved the first three Wham! singles, of which “Bad Boys” reached number two in the UK charts in 1983. It’s no guilty pleasure, just brilliantly written, tongue-in-cheek soul-pop dreamed up in a teenager’s bedroom: Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou was only 19 years old when he penned this and “Careless Whisper.” Don’t tell me you can listen to it without a smile on your face – and looking past its comedic lyrics, it’s a damn funky tune. If Michael were with us today, I am sure he would reconsider the pop smashes that made his name and rework them into his concerts. Sadly, it took his untimely death for many to accept that he was a bit of a genius.
Song #39 – “Move On Up” by Curtis Mayfield (1970)
Had I omitted “Move On Up” from this playlist, I would have been fired from my job as Chief Uplifting Song Procurement Officer and ended up with a menial job like... I dunno... wine writer? Everything from its no-messin’ title to the blast of horns that introduces Mayfield’s signature song screams positive vibes. In the 1960s, Mayfield was the main member and songwriter of gospel/R&B group The Impressions, penning classics and political awareness anthems such as their best-known hit, “People Get Ready,” which Bob Marley later used as the basis for “One Love.” Mayfield left The Impressions to pursue a solo career that commenced with his eponymous debut album in 1970. “Move On Up” was its nine-minute centerpiece, edited down for a single release in the US, where it inexplicably failed to chart. Over subsequent years it has become recognized as a soul classic. Irresistibly funky, it delivers forward momentum that never lets up, thanks to that insistent guitar riff and Henry Gibson’s frenetic bongo playing.
Song #40 – “Dancing Queen” by ABBA (1976)
Back in the day, I traditionally finished my DJ set with ABBA’s euphoric anthem. When you heard Agnetha and Frida’s angelic voices, you knew it was time for one last dance. I’ve always loved ABBA even when they were deemed cheesy trash. I still remember some idiot storming into the DJ booth threatening to beat me up for the crime of playing “Knowing Me, Knowing You.” C’mon... they are among the greatest songwriters and vocalists ever. The irate invader’s enmity was not uncommon back then, and only in the 1990s did the Swedish quartet gain credibility and reverence.
“Dancing Queen” is the final song on this list. The word “quarantine” comes from the Italian quaranta giorni, which refers to the 40 days ships had to anchor in Venice during the Great Plague, so 40 songs seem the right number.