Start! British debut singles: Part 2

Continuing the absolutely final and definitive list of the best debut singles in the history of British pop music, which we started last week . . .

  1. Elastica, ‘Stutter’ (1993)

If not as cool, studied and nonchalant as their big hits, this was still an enthusiastic bit of noisy pop. Verse-chorus-verse-chorus, no solos, two minutes and twenty seconds – that’s the way to announce yourselves. It was released in November 1993, just as Britpop was reaching its peak, when times were good.

  1. Wee Willie Harris, ‘Rockin’ at the Two I’s’ (1957)

Despite the rival claim of Cliff Richard’s ‘Move It’, this is surely the first authentic British rock ’n’ roll record. The music isn’t particularly rock – the horns sound more like drunken jazz sessionmen slumming it – and the chorus is uninspired, but the verses are a joy. Unlike most of Wee Willie’s work, he wrote this one himself and it shows. Any song that rhymes ‘blue jeans’ with ‘cup of tea’ is going to do alright with me. There’s a story that when Ian Dury met Harris for the first time, he recited the entire lyrics to him.

As the title indicates, it’s a tribute to the Two I’s coffee-bar in Old Compton Street, the birthplace of British rock ’n’ roll, where Harris first found a role for himself, playing piano behind other singers. But mostly it’s a self-portrait of a kid going out for a night of excitement. And it’s very definitely a London kid. There is, perhaps, a certain amount of artistic licence being taken with the 54 bus route (which didn’t go north of the river, and surely wouldn’t have got him to Soho) but you’ve got to allow a bit of flexibility.

This wasn’t a hit – Wee Willie didn’t do hits – but it was the basis for a solid career that stretched well into this century; happily he’s still with us. And while he may never have been the world’s most gifted singer, he was a great entertainer.

  1. The Libertines, ‘What a Waster’ (2002)

Britpop had died, poisoned by a lethal cocktail of self-indulgence and New Labour, and it seemed to have been a long time since a rock ’n’ roll band had meant anything. The Libertines changed all that with a song that spelt out an uncompromising message from the opening lines: ‘What a waster! What a fuckin’ waster! You pissed it all up the wall.’

The genius of the record was to sound dishevelled and chaotic, while at the same time deploying enough twists and tricks in the arrangement to demonstrate what an incredibly tight band they could be. Oh, and then to ram it full of hooklines and chuck in some lyrical references to the Beano and to Ulysses. And – in the great tradition of Wee Willie Harris – there’s the wonderfully English rhyme of ‘div’ with ‘spiv’.

Also available in Pete Doherty solo-acoustic form.

  1. The Only Ones, ‘Lovers of Today’ (1977)

They’re mostly seen as a New Wave act, even though the grubby romanticism is more in tune with glam rock. But sometimes it’s all about timing, rather than music. There was, after all, a time when Television were billed as punk.

In fact, Television are the closest parallel to the Only Ones: the same fixation on long, melodic guitar-lines, and the same sense that the first album was so perfect that there was little left to say. Which presumably makes this single the Only Ones’ equivalent of ‘Little Jimmy Jewel’: an independently released debut that contained, in a raw version, everything that was to be realized when a big label put some money into the band.

Things to look out for: second verse same as the first verse (almost), the way that all the best guitar-work is kept for after the instrumental break, some top lyrics:

If we ever touched, it would disturb the calm.
Physical effort often causes mental harm.

And, of course, the fragile whine of Peter Perrett, one of the great British voices.

  1. Lulu and the Luvvers, ‘Shout’ (1964)

Central to the British beat boom of the mid-1960s was the unexpected phenomenon of white working-class British singers drawing on black American vocal styles. And in there, alongside Eric Burdon, Stevie Winwood, Steve Marriott, Mick Jagger and the rest – even if not quite as celebrated – was the noise that was Lulu. This was released when she was just 15 and, although it doesn’t stray too far from the Isley Brothers’ 1959 original, via Alex Harvey,* it’s a great record, particularly the opening multi-syllabic rendition of the word ‘Well’. It’s not necessarily her best work (see ‘Everybody Clap’ and the better-than-Bowie version of ‘The Man Who Sold the World’), but it’s the one she’ll be remembered for.

* My thanks to Pismo Tality for pointing out that Lulu knew the song from Alex Harvey’s version.

  1. The Special AKA, ‘Gangsters’ (1979)

This was a total revelation at the time. For a start, there was the wonderful imbalance between the number of performers (seven of them, running around so much that they seemed even thicker on the ground) and the spacious emptiness of the sound. Then there was the fact that the arrangement was so good: the guitar-solo, the organ-lines and the drumming might not be the most elaborate, but they all fit so damn well. And there was Terry Hall’s high-pitched, uninflected and instantly distinctive vocal .

Oh, and there was the song as well, a view of the music business so cynical it could have been a final release before splitting up, rather than an opening salvo to a career: ‘Catch-22 says if I sing the truth, they won’t make me an overnight star.’

At a time when punk had run of steam and the most interesting new acts didn’t seem over-concerned with making accessible pop music, this seemed to offer a way forward.

  1. Frankie Goes to Hollywood, ‘Relax’ (1983)

Frankie Goes To Hollywood – Relax (Official Video) – YouTube

The massive onslaught of ‘Relax’ would have been a magnificent folly at any time, but it was even more welcome given that it hit the top of the charts at the beginning of 1984, just as British pop entered a bleak, miserable era. Other British acts to reach #1 that year: Paul McCartney, Duran Duran, Wham!, Jim Diamond and Band Aid. By comparison, Frankie were an island of hope in an ocean of mediocrity.

Much of the praise for the juggernaut sound obviously went to producer Trevor Horn (who’d learnt his craft as a session player for the mighty Biddu), but the demo version of ‘Relax’ that Frankie unveiled on The Tube suggested that they’d always known what they wanted to do – even if the visual imagery there was S&M sleaze rather than the gay sleaze of the official video. (Incidentally, the clip of ‘Heaven’ they inserted into the song on that occasion isn’t a patch on Tuxedomoon’s epic version.)

I’ve noticed that several of the choices here feature voices that I’m particularly fond of, and Holly Johnson’s is another one. I don’t know that he’s ever given the credit he deserves as a singer.

  1. Throbbing Gristle, ‘United’ (1978)

I like to think of Throbbing Gristle as being very much the Beatles of my generation: an extraordinary grouping of four disparate talents, restlessly trying out new ideas and sounds, pushing back the frontiers of what pop music could do. Admittedly, they never quite had the commercial or cultural impact of the Beatles, but that’s very much our fault, not theirs.

Although they were primarily an albums band, there were a handful of singles, of which this was the first and best. It’s a simple, charming piece of electro-pop that channelled the spirit of Aleister Crowley, yet still showed the vein of romanticism that is one of Genesis P-Orridge’s lesser known traits. (See Psychic TV’s lovely 1982 single ‘Just Drifting’.) It didn’t make the charts, of course, and the only time I remember it being played in a public place was on the jukebox in the (original) Scala Cinema in London.

In case anyone had been attracted to the band by such lightweight fare, the album version that appeared on the subsequent DoA was sped up, so that it lasted just 17 seconds. Which was a very fine joke.

  1. The Equals, ‘I Won’t Be There’ (1966)

The Equals – I won’t be there (1967) – YouTube

What a fantastic band the Equals were. Proper bubblegum in the true 1960s sense: garage guitars, no solos, dance rhythms, simple melodies and repeated lyrical phrases, all of which are impossible to dislodge once they’ve got you in their grip. (So, ‘bubblegum’ as in, for example, the Shadows of Knight 1968 single ‘Shake’.) Everything was in place on this first release, though it was to take another couple of years and ‘Baby Come Back’ to elevate the Equals to chart success, and until 1970 for them to reach their highest artistic peak with ‘Black-Skinned Blue-Eyed Boys’.

  1. John Cooper Clarke, ‘Suspended Sentence’ (1977)

The advent of punk meant that 1977 was a year of great debuts, from the Clash and the Jam to the Killjoys and Wreckless Eric. But none of them were as influential and special as this hypnotic masterpiece, a nightmare vision of an increasingly reactionary country. If a key element of a classic debut is the announcement of an entirely new voice, then few can rival this – I can still remember the joy of hearing it being played for the first time by John Peel. And the beauty of the track was that even without the voice, it would have been one of the great records of the era. As if that weren’t enough, on the B-side was the biker-baiting genius of ‘Psycle Sluts’:

Motorcycle Michael wants to buy a tank;
Only 29-years-old and he’s learning how to wank.

The legacy was huge: John Cooper Clarke’s cult success paved the way not only for the performance poetry boom, but also for alternative comedy.



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