This month is the thirtieth anniversary of the best debut single in the history of British pop music. To mark the occasion, we’re posting a chart of the thirty finest examples of the art.
It’s a difficult trick, pulling off the debut single. Ideally it should come across as an event in its own right, an instant classic that’s also full of promise for the future, launching an act with a fanfare and maybe even with a manifesto.
Not many manage it. The biggest stars don’t have much of a track record in this department. ‘Love Me Do’, ‘Liza Jane’, ‘Silly Billy’ – they’re not the singles you chose to remember people by. The following are the exceptions.
I’ve applied the strictest criterion to these selections: a true debut, I believe, means that no members of the act have previously released anything (session musicians excluded, obviously). That means that, for example, Dexys Midnight Runners, the Auteurs and Fox all miss out. It’s also worth noting that, though the artists may not be British, the records very definitely are.
And, in due course, we’ll get round to the record that prompted all this.
- Them, ‘Don’t Start Crying Now’ (1964)
There’s something rather wonderful about an unaccompanied vocal intro on a rock single, whether it’s Little Richard’s ‘A-wop-bop-etc’ or Noddy Holder’s ‘Baby, baby, baby’. And this here is one of the very best. It’s Van Morrison’s first recorded vocal and I’d argue that the opening line is the best thing he’s ever done.
The intro was already there in the song, but – as in the version by Slim Harpo – it’s used to be a bluesy, soully kind of line. Not in Morrison’s hands; here it’s pure menace, a garage punk growl of aggression. And if the rest of the recording doesn’t quite match up, it’s still a pretty tough production by 1964 standards. It wasn’t a hit, but the next single was ‘Baby, Please Don’t Go’ / ‘Gloria’ and things started looking up.
Fans of the Count Bishops (and who isn’t a fan of the Count Bishops?) will also cherish the version of ‘Don’t Start Crying Now’ on their 1977 debut album, which has the music that Morrison’s voice deserved.
- Carl Douglas and the Big Stampede, ‘Crazy Feeling’ (1966)
Talking of tough productions that weren’t hits, this frantic stomp from 1966 should’ve been massive, but sadly made no commercial impact at all. Carl Douglas had come to Britain from Jamaica and formed the Big Stampede, who were a good enough live act that they got to support visiting American stars like Otis Redding and Ike and Tina Turner.
‘Crazy Feeling’ was co-written and produced by Pierre Tubs, who went on to write Maxine Nightingale’s ‘Right Back Where We Started From’ in 1975. That, of course, was a year after Douglas himself had finally achieved the success he deserved with ‘Kung Fu Fighting’. Both of those are great records, but they’re not a patch on this.
- David Gray, ‘Birds Without Wings’ (1992)
He became a big star with the #1 album White Ladder (1998), which was very nice if you like that sort of thing. But the first single, released on the fashionable Hut record label (home to the Auteurs), was something else altogether. It’s a wonderful intense piece: a five-minute song with just a strummed acoustic guitar as accompaniment, which meant his voice was more exposed, raw and powerful than it would be in later days. There are hints here of Tom Waits. Though admittedly a Tom Waits who’d been reading the Angry Young Men rather than the Beats.
And the video ends with a lovely little smile.
- Def Leppard, ‘Getcha Rocks Off’ (1979)
The New Wave of British Heavy Metal (NWOBHM) was the most clumsily titled rock movement of its day. And mostly it was critically ignored (with the honourable exception of Geoff Barton at Sounds). Heavy metal had never been fashionable, but by the end of the 1970s – as futurists and post-punk pioneers picked their way through the ranks of mod, ska and rockabilly revivals – it really looked dead and buried. Which may be why the critics missed just how big this was going to be: out of everything that has happened in British music since punk, nothing has proved more influential than the NWOBHM.
There were several factors involved in the rebirth of metal, but the record that really inaugurated the new era was Def Leppard’s self-produced, self-released debut EP, of which this was the best-known track. Unless I’m misremembering myself, it was named as Single of the Year by Sounds. Certainly it became a big enough cult success to get the group signed to Vertigo, where a re-recorded version, more polished and less powerful, appeared on the 1980 album On Through the Night.
- The Vaccines, ‘Wreckin’ Bar (Ra Ra Ra)’ (2010)
I mean, this stuff should be dead easy, really. Thrashy guitars, two alternating sections (both using the same three-chord trick), a simple guitar solo, and a reference to F Scott Fitzgerald, all over and done with in the space of one-and-a-half minutes. Anyone could do that. But if it’s so easy, how come no one’s nailed it so perfectly since the early days of the Ramones?
- The Pop Group, ‘She Is Beyond Good and Evil’ (1979)
This is where the stupidity of my self-imposed limitations starts to bite. Asked to name great debut singles from the turn of the 1980s, virtually everyone would suggest Pigbag’s ‘Papa’s Got a Brand New Pigbag’. But the bass on that was played by Simon Underwood, who’d already recorded with the Pop Group. So it doesn’t count.
But the Pop Group themselves do, and ‘She Is Beyond Good and Evil’ was itself a fine start, a scratchy, funky, dubby piece with Mark Stewart’s portentous baritone telling us that ‘Western values mean nothing to her’. This is normally considered part of the post-punk world that also gave us PiL and the Gang of Four, but look at it from another angle (with your eyes half-closed and your fingers in your ears) and it might strike you that Spandau Ballet took this blueprint, cleaned it up to make it mainstream, and built a career.
- Matumbi, ‘Brother Louie’ (1973)
One of the reasons ‘She Is Beyond Good and Evil’ sounds so powerful is that it was produced by the great Dennis Bovell. He was also the key figure in Matumbi, whose first single this is. It’s a cover of the Hot Chocolate classic, and if musically it’s not quite as good as the original, the storyline of the interracial relationship is sold more convincingly here. It’s also pretty much the first really good British reggae record. If, that is, you discount Hot Chocolate’s own debut, ‘Give Peace a Chance’. Which I do.
- Crazy Cavan and the Rhythm Rockers, ‘Teddy Boy Boogie’ (1973)
There’d been rock ’n’ roll revival records in Britain before. There’d been the Wild Angels, debuting with ‘Nervous Breakdown’ (1968), Shakin’ Stevens and the Sunsets with ‘Spirit of Woodstock’ (1970), and Fumble with ‘Hello Mary Lou’ (1972). All of which were okay, but they were hardly going to set your soul on fire. And then came Crazy Cavan.
This was brutally simple stuff, featuring the kind of lo-fi, primitive riff that turned the Cramps onto rockabilly. What really made it, though, was the fact that the lyrics had no time for the dewy-eyed nostalgia associated with that year’s big movie American Graffiti. Instead it oozed venom and violence: ‘Standing on the corner, swinging my chain’ is a fantastic opening line. And it’s irredeemably British.
The original’s the best, but there’s also a great live version of it here from 1976, with Cavan Grogan himself looking like an Alex Harvey character.
- Cliff Richard and the Drifters, ‘Move It’ (1958)
Some acts get it right the first time out and then never quite manage to recapture the magic. I believe that at the last count Cliff Richard has released 146 singles, and he’s still got nowhere near this first attempt. It’s not much of a song (not much of a vocal, come to that), but the guitar riff is fabulous and – remarkably – it doesn’t sound like a copy of American rock. Whether ‘Move It’ warrants its reputation as the first great British rock ’n’ roll record is arguable (I’ll be arguing against it in the next instalment), but it was certainly the first great British rock ’n’ roll hit.
This version is from 1960 and, once you get past the feeble comedy at the beginning, it features some fine playing by Hank Marvin, who’s not on the original record. And you get to see the beauty of Jet Harris, which in turn gives me the excuse to plug his magnificently filmed ‘Man from Nowhere’ – you don’t want to miss that, I promise.
- The Spice Girls, ‘Wannabe’ (1996)
It’s still a terrific record. Difficult, of course, to get anywhere near hearing it with fresh ears, since it’s by far the biggest debut any British act has ever released. Even this video has had nearly a quarter-of-a-billion hits on YouTube, a platform that wasn’t launched till the single had been out for the best part of a decade.
But despite its ubiquity, it remains a lovely bit of bubblegum: blocked chord progressions that never resolve, and vocal hooks all over the place – I particularly admire the way they save ‘Slam your body down and wind it all around’ till almost the end. Despite the Blur/Oasis rivalry, this was closer to the energy and spirit of the early Beatles than anything else in the Britpop years. Even if the Spice Girls did nick their schtick from Shampoo.