In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
They fucked up the opening line. That might be my favorite thing about it. Shocking Blue were Dutch, and they made extremely catchy and efficient garage-pop. They knew how English-language pop music worked, but English wasn’t their first language, and it showed. Case in point: “Venus,” the band’s one huge international single. Guitarist and band founder Robbie Van Leeuwen just wanted to write a song about the Roman love goddess. But when he was writing out the first line, he accidentally wrote: “The godness on the mountaintop.” Singer Mariska Veres, who’d just joined the band a year earlier, sang the word “godness” as it was written. Later on, they recorded different versions of the song where they fixed that line. But it was too late. The “godness” version of “Venus” was the one that stuck.
“Venus” was not an altogether original song. In 1963, the Big 3, a folk trio that included a pre-Mamas And The Papas Mama Cass, recorded a song called “The Banjo Song.” That wasn’t really original, either; band member Tim Rose had simply written a new arrangement for the folk standard “Oh Susanna.” Van Leeuwen took that arrangement — the riff, the vocal melody, everything — and used it for “Venus.” He also took the swirling guitar intro from the Who’s “Pinball Wizard.” All of it was absolutely shameless. You could get away with stuff like that back then.
Along with those bits that he swiped, Van Leeuwen added near-nonsensical lyrics about a goddess whose “weapons were her crystal eyes.” The song’s perspective shifts back and forth between third and first person, so we can’t tell whether Veres is singing about Venus or whether she’s supposed to be Venus. Between the outright theft and the lyrical clumsiness, nothing about “Venus” should work. And yet all of it does.
It’s so clean and propulsive: that strum, that dinky organ riff, the Teutonic sneer in Veres’ voice. Veres snarls hard enough that it ultimately doesn’t matter whether or not she has any idea what she’s singing. (She straight-up sings “crystal ass” instead of “crystal eyes,” which might be even better.) The yelp on the hook — “She’s got it! Yeah, baby, she’s got it!” — means nothing, but it sticks in your head all the same. The song works like a hook-delivery machine. When Bananarama covered it and brought it back to #1 sixteen years later, they turned it into bloopy synthpop, but they didn’t have to alter one bit of the structure. It was already all there. Someone could probably cover “Venus” tomorrow and make it sound just as good.
BONUS BEATS: Another of the songs from the Shocking Blue’s 1969 sophomore album At Home was the strange psychedelic lope “Love Buzz,” which they never released as a single. Here it is:
You can already see where this is going. In 1988, Nirvana recorded a cover of “Love Buzz” for Sub Pop’s Singles Club. It was Nirvana’s first single. A year later, Nirvana included “Love Buzz” on Bleach. Even more than “About A Girl,” the existence of that “Love Buzz” cover showed that Kurt Cobain had a deep love and appreciation of pop music and its history. Here it is:
(Nirvana’s highest-charting single was 1991’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” which peaked at #6. It’s a 10.)
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Andrea Barber, Candace Cameron, and occasional Beach Boys percussionist John Stamos attempting to cover “Venus” on a 1988 episode of Full House: