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.
In 1981, the Beatles reunited. After John Lennon’s murder, George Harrison wrote and recorded “All Those Years Ago,” a heartfelt tribute to his late friend and bandmate. Ringo Starr played drums on the song, and Paul McCartney sang overdubbed backing vocals, as did McCartney’s Wings bandmates Linda McCartney and Denny Laine. This was the first time all three surviving Beatles had been on a song together in more than a decade. “All Those Years Ago” was clearly a big deal, but it couldn’t break the iron grip that Kim Carnes’ “Bette Davis Eyes” had over the #1 spot in the summer of 1981. (“All Those Years Ago” peaked at #2. It’s a 5.)
For one week that summer, however, a very different piece of Beatles nostalgia briefly interrupted the reign of “Bette Davis Eyes”: A ridiculous and gimmicky strung-together disco medley of old Beatles songs, recorded by Dutch studio musicians doing their best impressions of the Beatles’ voices. “Stars On 45” is an utterly absurd and shameless piece of music — a chintzy and silly attempt to capitalize on shared cultural memories. It’s also pretty good. It’s better than “All Those Years Ago.”
“Stars On 45” has a long and winding story. At the end of the disco era, DJs were putting together their own bootleg edits of songs — splicing popular tracks together in studios and anchoring them all to the same basic four-on-the-floor beat. Sometimes, they’d press these bootleg-mix records up on vinyl and sell them, mostly so other DJs could play them in clubs. One day, Willem van Kooten, an executive at a Dutch music publishing company, walked into a record store and heard the clerks playing one of those records — a wild and all-over-the-place mix that included a bunch of Beatles songs, as well as a bunch of more current tracks (the Buggles, Madness, a whole lot of disco).
Van Kooten didn’t have any idea what he was hearing, but he pieced it together when Shocking Blue’s “Venus” arrived in the mix. Van Kooten himself owned the copyright for “Venus,” and he knew that he hadn’t given permission for it to show in up any DJ mixes. The record that van Kooten was hearing came from three Montreal DJs. They’d put it out under the nondescript band name Passion, and they’d given it the excellent title “Let’s Do It In The ’80s Great Hits.”
“Let’s Do It In The ’80s Great Hits” was outright thievery, and if van Kooten could’ve figured out who to sue, he might’ve sued somebody. Instead, he stole the whole idea and effectively remade it. Van Kooten hired the Dutch producer Jaap Eggermont, a guy who’d once been the drummer for an early version of the Dutch band Golden Earring. (Golden Earring’s highest-charting single in the US, 1982’s “Twilight Zone,” peaked at #10. It’s an 8. I am crushed to report that 1973’s “Radar Love” only made it up to #13.) Eggermont found a few Dutch musicians — Bas Muys, Okkie Huysdens, Hans Vermeulen — who could do pretty good imitations of the voices of (respectively) Lennon, McCartney, and Harrison.
For the single “Stars On 45,” the group — also called Stars On 45 — recreated the “Let’s Do It In The ’80s Great Hits” mix almost exactly, transitioning between then-current disco hits and old Beatles songs with a giddy and lovable sort of thoughtlessness. They used all those songs on a long, sprawling 12″ single that spanned over 10 minutes and included bits and pieces of things like “Funkytown” and “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini,” as well as all those Beatles songs. This was early in the digital-recording era, and Eggermont recorded a those songs separately and then spliced them all together himself, fitting them all to a basic drum-machine clap track — just like the bootleg mix had done. Eggermont also added an extremely catchy disco refrain that would occasionally bring the track back around, letting us know that we were hearing the Stars On 45.
In order to get “Stars On 45″ to fit onto an actual 45, Eggermont had to edit it even more, whittling an 11-minute track down to a manageable five minutes. He didn’t think it could work, but the 7” version fit together pretty cleanly. (This can happen when you keep the same mechanized backbeat throughout.) “Stars On 45” took off in Europe, especially in the UK. Radio Records, an Atlantic subsidiary, put it out in the US. The song might’ve been a weird little novelty if it didn’t come out when it did. Radio released “Stars On 45” in June of 1981, just a few months after John Lennon’s murder — just in time to catch the public wave of Beatles nostalgia that resulted. And so “Stars On 45” took off.
It’s weird to think that people mourned John Lennon’s death by jamming “Stars On 45,” a truly goofy and gravitas-free piece of music. The single came out long after the disco backlash, and it actually included the word “disco” in its very first hook: “You can boogie like disco! Love that disco sound!” (So European! So incoherent! I love it!) It also committed the ridiculous sin of throwing a couple of vaguely Beatle-esque songs — the Archies’ “Sugar, Sugar,” Shocking Blue’s aforementioned “Venus” — in with all the actual Beatles songs, as if they’re the same thing. It didn’t matter. None of it mattered. Apparently, Americans wanted to hear silly-ass Beatles disco covers more than they wanted to hear actual Beatles singing about being Beatles. Grief is funny, you know?
But I get it. The goodwill directed at the Beatles must’ve been heavy in the air on 1981. Yet “Stars On 45” — a record conceived and recorded before Lennon’s death — doesn’t mourn. Instead, it goes right for the pop jugular, again and again. It mashes the “Oh shit, I love this song!” button like a toddler playing Nintendo, swinging from one song to the next with a breathless sort of urgency. The covers don’t recreate the originals too precisely, though they come closer than you might expect. But the level of accuracy isn’t the point. The point is to tickle whatever part of your brain holds affection for those songs, and then to keep tickling it. The point is the recognition.
On that first mangled-English hook, the song even presents itself as an exercise in pure nostalgia: “The Stars On 45! Keep on turning in your mind! Like ‘We Can Work It Out’! Remember ‘Twist And Shout’!” “Twist And Shout” — itself a cover — isn’t one of the Beatles songs interpolated on “Stars On 45.” But beyond that, there are no lies here. That chorus is truth in advertising. Those songs do keep on turning in your mind.
There had been medley records like “Stars On 45” before, though they’d never tried to copy the original recordings so closely, and they’d enjoyed that level of success. Still, there’s something bold about the total shamelessness of “Stars On 45.” The song reminds me a bit of Grandmaster Flash’s pioneering turntable single “The Adventures Of Grandmaster Flash On The Wheels Of Steel,” which also came out in 1981, or of the ADD Girl Talk mashup-marathons that would arrive decades later.
Thanks to the whole copyright situation, “Stars On 45” had to be released in the US under this official title: “Medley: Intro / Venus / Sugar Sugar / No Reply / I’ll Be Back / Drive My Car / Do You Want To Know A Secret / We Can Work It Out / I Should Have Known Better / Nowhere Man / You’re Going To Lose That Girl / Stars On 45.” At 41 words, that’s easily the longest song title that’s ever topped the Billboard Hot 100, shattering a record then held by B. J. Thomas’ “(Hey Won’t You Play) Another Somebody Done Somebody Wrong Song.” It’s amazing that they had enough room for any stars on that 45.
Stars On 45, amazingly enough, did not have a long career on the US charts. Their follow-up single “Medley II” — more Beatles songs, same type of deal — peaked at #67. A few more singles showed up in the Hot 100, but that was it. (In the UK, Stars On 45 made it into the top 10 with subsequent ABBA and Rolling Stones medleys.) And it wasn’t like Stars On 45 could tour. They just sounded like the Beatles. They didn’t look like them, too.
But “Stars On 45” did kick off a brief medley-record fad in the US. The Beach Boys made it up to #12 later in 1981 with their own “Beach Boys Medley.” And in 1982, the song “The Beatles Movie Medley” — an edited-together montage of Beatles songs from their film soundtracks — came out officially under the Beatles name and peaked at #12. To date, it’s the only Beatles single that’s never been released on CD or digital.
BONUS BEATS: As you can probably imagine, punk and new wave bands loved doing ironic versions of the “Stars On 45” format. So the Circle Jerks had “Golden Shower Of Hits (Jerks On 45),” Squeeze had “Squabs On Forty Fab,” Orange Juice had “Blokes On 45,” and the Damned’s Captain Sensible had “Damned On 45.” The Holly And The Ivys, a one-off project from the Dream Academy’s Nick Laird, had “Christmas On 45,” and Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour played guitar on it. The most enduring “Stars On 45” parody, however, is “Polkas On 45,” the accordion-based hit montage that “Weird Al” Yankovic included on his 1984 album In 3-D. Since then, Yankovic has included similar polka medleys on 12 of his albums. Here’s “Polkas On 45”:
(“Weird Al” Yankovic’s highest-charting single is 2006’s “White & Nerdy,” a parody of a song that will end up in this column. It peaked at #9, and it’s a 7.)