The Chi-Lites – Homely Girl

I first heard Homely Girl on Top of the Pops in 1974: its naive romanticism tied in with the funny feelings I had watching the Pan’s People girls dancing around in baby doll outfits (see below). I was six-years-old and didn’t quite understand what those funny feelings were.

It’s a very sweet song: the singer telling the girl of the title how he loved her even back when she wasn’t great looking. Only he had the insight to see that, beneath it all, she was beautiful. He’d always loved her, well before she blossomed into the incredible woman she is today. So the song is essentially an advertisement for what a wonderful man the singer is – unlike the boys who taunted her.

Apart from the cleverness and economy of the lyrics – telling a grand, human story with a minimum of fuss – there’s the smooth, countryfied soul of the music (with its charming nursery rhyme horns), Eugene Record’s yearning lead vocal and the graceful backing harmonies. Lovely.

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Rod Stewart – If I Had You

From Stewart’s terrible 2001 Human LP, there’s almost nothing that isn’t awful about this song: the soft reggae lilt, the cod soulful backing vocals, the wretched guitar solo and the overall AOR sheen. And yet I love it. The original, by The Korgis (a hit in 1979), came bathed in a sappiness and airiness that made it easy to miss. But what it did have is that lovely melody and sentiment: with you by my side I could do absolutely anything.

On Rod’s version the melody is still there but it’s considerably lifted by his voice. And although it’s one of his lazy, phoned in contributions it just seems right. When I listen to it I can hear how it’d sound with just him and an acoustic guitar. How it would sound, in fact, if he’d recorded it during his great early 70s period.

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Billy Fury – Gonna Type A Letter

A great, neglected slice of early British rock ‘n’ roll from the B-side of Fury’s first single (Maybe Tomorrow) in 1959. While it has much to recommend it – the energy, the simplicity, Fury’s vocal and the proof that Brits could occasionally get rock ‘n’ roll right – the best thing about it is using the typewriter as a percussion instrument: a subtle splash of colour that keeps it interesting without tipping it into novelty.

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Tyrannosaurus Rex – Debora

I’ve always envied any man (or woman) with a wife/girlfriend called Debora because they’d get to play them this over and over until they were absolutely sick of hearing it. Of course, their lover’s name would actually have to be Debora rather than Deborah or Debra. No cheating.

One of the things I love about it is that Bolan, dispensing with tired love song cliches, makes a girl who dresses like a conjuror and looks like a zebra and a stallion seem like a very attractive proposition indeed. And he manages this with the sheer exuberance of the playing and, particularly, with the weird loveliness of his voice. He sounds like he’s totally lost in this girl.

But the bit I really love – that never fails to delight and move me – is when he soars into that lovely “Ahhhhhh, ahhhh, ahhh, ahhh…” at 2:25. No wonder girls adored him so much.

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Flanagan and Allen – The Umbrella Man

Recorded in 1938 by Britain’s biggest stars, The Umbrella Man is a delicious slice of mournful nostalgia. Opening with a sense of peril and the sound of thunder, it soon shifts into something more flighty. Which lasts only for the few moments before Bud Flanagan’s warm and sad voice brings us the downbeat magic of a rainy day in the city.

Overall, it’s quite a strange little song. That urgent intro and the bulletin-like intonation of “Umbrellas. Umbrellas to mend”, Chesney Allen’s speaking/singing voice (“When there’s a lull…”), the failed attempts at jauntiness (e.g. the whistling bit) and the fact that the song has a grandeur to it even though its subject matter is a bloke who mends umbrellas. I like that: its celebration of the little man. If Ray Davies or Damon Albarn had written this you just know he’d be sneered at and portrayed as a sad, lonely loser.

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The Ran-Dells – Martian Hop

A gloriously fun novelty song from 1963 when the space age was all the rage. Simple but tricky (particularly with the doo-wop style backing vocals), it’s a very sweet and optimistic view of what would happen if we made contact with our near neighbours. A cracking melody, great use of sound effects and a brilliant falsetto vocal: a two-minute lesson in how pop music can be daft, disposable and utterly essential.

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Elvis – Don’t

My favourite Elvis song. A gospel doo-wop addressing the secular concern of convincing a woman to sleep with him. Which, given that this is Elvis in 1957 – and that he’s singing like that – makes the whole thing rather implausible. I’d have slept with him in a second.

That voice though, eh? Listen to the way he phrases the “If you think that this is just a game…” section. No-one could sing like Elvis.

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