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Take That, 'Relight My Fire' and Lulu's long path to victory [October 3, 1993]
Plus: Haddaway, Crowded House, and Yo La Tengo
Hey, Time Traveller! 👋 Welcome back to October 3, 1993!
📰 Black Hawk down! A botched American military in Mogadishu leads to two crashed US helicopters and a battle that kills 18 Americans and hundreds of Somalians. They made a movie about it in 2001.
📽️ Harvey Keitel stars in Brit crime drama The Young Americans, but the real star is Bjork’s epic theme song, ‘Play Dead’.
And we have a brand new Number One! Shooting straight in at the top, it’s…
Take That featuring Lulu, ’Relight My Fire’
A quick refresher for Americans and people under 40: BBC’s Top Of The Pops was a 30-minute weekly music show that aired on Thursday nights, had in-studio performances, and included a rundown of that week’s Top 40.
But this was more than just a TV show—it was the engine of British pop music at a time when British pop music really mattered. TOTP was such a big deal that even Doctor Who would park his TARDIS to catch that week’s Number One.
Top Of The Pops first aired in 1964, when Beatlemania was an out-of-control epidemic, London was swinging, and the weekly charts were teeming with classic pop songs.
For example, look at the chart from the first week of June, 1964. Cilla Black was Number One with her career-making hit, ‘You’re My World’, holding off fierce competition from ‘It’s Over’ by Roy Orbison, ‘My Guy’ by Mary Wells, and ‘No Particular Place To Go’ by Chuck Berry.
Just below this murderer’s row of classics, a winsome Scottish teenager named Lulu was enjoying her first pop success with a cover of The Isley Brothers’ song ‘Shout’. Lulu peaked at Number 7, but that was good enough to make her among the first guests on Top Of The Pops.
(BBC, in their wisdom, erased all of their old Top Of The Pops recordings, but it probably looked like this.)
‘Shout’ was a massive hit and Lulu became a bona fide. It seemed inevitable that she would eventually be back on Top Of The Pops as the Numer One artist.
And it was inevitable. But it wouldn’t happen for another 29 years, 3 months, and 13 days.
You gotta be strong enough to walk on through the night
Lulu is a fascinating pop culture figure, a Zelig-like character who is always in the background of music history. That’s her on John Lennon’s sofa, listening to early demos of Sgt Pepper’s; there she is listening patiently as a young Jimmy Page plays her the fuzzbox he’s just invented.
(“Made a weird farting sound," she later said. "The guitar that is, not Jimmy Page.")
But despite Lulu’s public profile and famous friends, she couldn’t find a follow-up to ‘Shout’. She had a couple of modest hits (a decent Northern Soul ballad; a dull Neil Diamond cover), but most of her follow-up singles didn’t even chart. Lulu was in serious danger of being a one-hit-wonder.
Things turned around in 1967 when she was cast opposite Sidney Poitier in the classroom drama To Sir With Love. It was well-received, although one unimpressed reviewer said:
"The sententious script sounds as if it has been written by a zealous Sunday school teacher after a particularly exhilarating boycott of South African oranges.”
Lulu recorded the film’s title song, which became a smash hit in the States. ‘To Sir With Love’ was Billboard Number One for five weeks in 1967, the second-longest run in a year of chart-toppers that included ‘Ruby Tuesday’, ‘All You Need Is Love’, ‘Respect’, and ‘Light My Fire’.
(The only song to spend longer on top than Lulu in 1967? ‘I’m A Believer’.)
Surely this means that Lulu would get her first UK Number One and headline Top Of The Pops? Nope! In the UK, ‘To Sir With Love’ was released as the B-Side of ‘Let’s Pretend’, which peaked at Number 11.
There's a new day on the other side
I think if Lulu were around today, we’d understand her as an influencer. She sang a bit, modelled a bit, acted a bit, but her main job was simply “being Lulu”. She was cute and funny and friends with The Beatles.
People really liked her. Just not enough to make her Number One.
The BBC loved Lulu and stuck her in everything, like a proto-Sue Perkins. In 1969, she got her own show called Happening For Lulu, the first episode of which featured Pan’s People, the dance troupe that provided "something for the dads" in 1970s Top Of The Pops.
Episode 2 had slightly more impressive guests: The Jimi Hendrix Experience, mere months before they made history at Woodstock. Jimi had agreed to play his signature hit, ‘Hey Joe’, and would even let Lulu join in on vocals (giving her credibility a much-needed boost).
But the very stoned Hendrix changed his mind. After a blistering performance of ‘Purple Haze’, the Experience got halfway through ‘Hey Joe’ before Hendrix said, “We’re going to stop playing this rubbish.” The band then launched into a cover of Cream’s ‘Sunshine Of Your Love’ while ignoring the producer’s increasingly frantic signals to stop.
(All of the retrospective interviews have people saying “We just couldn’t pull him off!” which is extra funny if you’ve seen Cynthia Plastercaster’s work.)
Happening For Lulu was part of a bigger project to find a Eurovision song for Lulu to perform. Lulu performed a potential song each week, and the audience chose the winner.
Among the songwriters vying to win Lulu’s favour were Elton John and Bernie Taupin (they came last) and Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice (they entered a song from Jesus Christ Superstar but didn’t qualify). Instead, audiences opted for the stereotypical Eurovision nonsense of ‘Boom Bang-A-Bang’.
The UK had only won Eurovision once, but there were high hopes that Lulu could secure a second trophy. Everything went great on the night, and Lulu finished at the top of the table. Unfortunately, 1969 was Eurovision’s first and only tie, with UK, France, Netherlands, and Spain achieving equal points.
‘Boom Bang-a-Bang’ sold well as a single and probably would have given Lulu that elusive Number One… if only Marvin Gaye had picked a different week to release ‘Heard It Through The Grapevine’.
But he didn’t. ‘Boom Bang-a-Bang’ peaked at Number 2.
You've got to have hope in your soul
Lulu’s romantic CV is also quite impressive. She married Maurice Gibb, dated a Monkee and one of Herman’s many Hermits, and has been linked with everyone you can imagine. She denies sleeping with Frank Sinatra, but in a way that makes me think she probably slept with Frank Sinatra.
In a 2015 interview, she spoke yearningly about one celebrity lover who distracted her after she divorced Gibb:
"[His] thighs were incredible, long and slim but muscly. Not pumped up but really powerful. They were strong, even though he was emaciated at the time. I often think that he had similarly shaped thighs to Naomi Campbell.”
And that lover was…
Bowie pursued her, partly for sex but mainly because he was convinced that she could find superstardom by covering some of his less-known tracks like ‘Watch That Man’, ‘Dodo’ and ‘The Man Who Sold The World’.
(Bowie was doing a lot of cocaine at this time.)
Lulu and Bowie recorded a number of covers, none of which were ever released except for ‘The Man Who Sold The World’, which was a single in early 1974.
Later that year, Lulu got into bed with another hypersexualised man responsible for a string of hits: James Bond. The previous Bond theme had been a massive hit for her old pal, Paul McCartney, so it was quite an honour to be hired for the next one.
Sadly, Lulu once again made history in the worst possible way: ‘The Man With The Golden Gun’ is the only Bond song not to chart. John Barry considers it his worst Bond song; Lulu thinks it’s the worst Bond song ever.
It’s honestly not that bad, but it did seem to mark a shift in her career. “Lulu the pop star” slowly became “Lulu, the former pop star”.
Keep on walking
Apologies if I’m painting Lulu as a failure here—she’s had a wildly successful career over the decades. I just think it must be frustrating to have been one of the first stars of Top Of The Pops and never quite make it to the top. Especially for someone with Lulu’s relentless ambition.
She never gave up on pop stardom, and managed a mini-comeback in 1993 with a dance single that placed at Number 11 (it’s okay, sounds a bit like Lisa Stansfield). It got her back on Top Of The Pops, and helped convince Ian Martin-Smith to get her on the new Take That record, even though the label wanted someone with a house music credibility.
Take That also wanted someone else—ideally, someone like Juliet Roberts, who later joined them for live versions of Relight My Fire. But any doubts about Lulu vanished when she arrived in studio, did a brilliant take, and charmed the pants off everyone (quite literally if you believe the rumours that she had sex with Jason Orange.)
Maybe Gary Barlow felt a kindred spirit in Lulu. Take That had also been frustrated by multiple failures to hit Number One, with the last two singles stalling out at Number 3 and Number 2. They were successful but still needed that massive, career-defining hit. Boybands could easily become “former pop stars”—just look at New Kids On The Block.
In July 1993, ‘Pray’ gave Take That their first Number One, smashing straight in at the top of the charts. Things looked good for their next single, a cover of the minor disco hit ‘Relight My Fire’.
Still, it must have been nerve-wracking for Lulu. Imagine if Take That-mania faded and they only made Number 2? Or if it was a hit, but they replaced her with someone younger and cooler?
If you were watching Top Of The Pops on September 23rd, 1993, you would have seen Tony Dortie introduce that week’s brand new Number One. And then you would have seen the world’s hottest boyband dancing and gyrating for an audience half-mad with teenage lust.
And then, halfway through the song—around the time Hendrix got bored of ‘Hey Joe’—you would have watched as those boys stop dancing. They arrange themselves into a strange tableau of abs and hair, a sexy guard of honour. They turn and point to the velvet curtain behind them.
The curtain bursts open, and Lulu strides out. She is resplendent, victorious.
She’s just set the record for the longest wait between first single and first Number One. She’s been waiting over 10,000 days to be the star of Top Of The Pops. And none of that matters right now because she is, more than ever before, Lulu The Pop Star.
Get wrecked, Cilla Black.
Elsewhere in the charts
[Number 6 ↑] Haddaway, ‘Life’
The 90s charts are full of floorfilling all-time dance classics like ‘What Is Love?’. And they’re also filled with follow-up singles that are similar but quite not as good.
Some people got away with it (looking at you, 2 Unlimited) but others were consigned to one-hit wonder purgatory. Which is a shame in this case because ‘Life’ is a bop and Haddaway really puts his back into it. Let’s call him a one-and-a-half-hit wonder.
[Number 11 ↓ New] Gabrielle, ‘Going Nowhere’
Once again, Gabrielle is hamstrung by very dull production. Great chorus, great vocal, but it’s all smoothed out into a bland, radio-friendly blob of nothing much.
[Number 14 ↑] Paul Young, ‘Now I Know What Made Otis Blue’
Written by Leeson & Vale, which makes this an unofficial follow-up to ‘Would I Lie To You?’ It’s quite similar to Charles & Eddie’s hit, although it lacks that little extra bit of pizzazz. Nice to see Paul in the charts again though.
[Number 17 ↓ ] Belinda Carlisle, ‘Big Scary Animal’
Michel Gondry continues to establish himself as one of the world’s greatest music video directors, following on from his superb clip for ‘Human Behaviour’.
I wonder if the collapse of MTV culture will affect the movie industry? Music videos have given us the likes of Gus Van Sant, David Fincher, and the most recent Best Oscar winners, The Daniels. Where will auteurs cut their teeth if we don’t have ambitious music videos?
[Number 19 ↑] Crowded House, ‘Distant Sun’
The Finns return with their fourth LP, Together Alone. ‘Distant Sun’ is a kind of major-key version of ‘Fall At Your Feet’, but that’s not a bad thing.
Album of the Week
Yo La Tengo, Painful
Americans are always Americans, regardless of the context. Yo La Tengo’s breakthrough album (and Matador Records debut) shares some DNA with recent releases from British bands like Slowdive and Stereolab, but while those LPs feel like they were made on a cold, cramped island, Painful speaks to America’s enormous wilderness, its epic vastness.
Take the track, ‘From a Motel 6’, for example, which rolls along like an empty blacktop that stretches out to infinity:
Dinosaur Jnr’s Where You Been? also has that epic feeling of driving for hours, and maybe that’s just because these indie bands made music for listening to alone. In 90s Europe, your private space was probably a bedsit; in America, your car.
On a record like Painful, the paradox of being small and alone in a big, noisy world creates this constant sense of dramatic tension. Opening track ‘Big Day Coming’ is a gentle, dreamy whisper with ironic lyrics like “Let’s wake up our neighbours, let’s turn up our amps”. Later on, ‘Big Day Coming—Second Version’ does turn up the amps, almost sounding like Primal Scream.
Somewhere in between, we get the ‘Nowhere Near’, a lovesong so intimate that it feels like we’re eavesdropping.
Painful finishes with the biggest track of all, the stunning 7-minute arms-to-heaven instrumental, ‘I Heard You Looking’. Painful is often a very small record, but that ending is huge.
It takes remarkable skill and vision to explore so many ideas, especially when the music itself is often quite simple. A terrific LP and a foundational text in American alternative music.
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