The understated genius of Black Lace’s party anthem
Once upon a time forty years ago, the son of Enrico and a mate of his wrote a cheesy tune called Gioca Jouer. The songwriters, Claudio Simonetti and Claudio Cecchetto (the former being Enrico’s son) did pretty well with their tune. It was used as the opening theme for that year’s Sanremo Music Festival and a smash in their home country, Italy.
In this video, we see Claudio Cecchetto and Italy’s answer to Legs and Co dancing along on the Super Classifica Show. Which is probably Italy’s answer to Top of the Pops, though set-wise it has more in common with France’s answer to ToTP (Bananas) and Australia’s legendary Countdown series. (Which, for the benefit of our British readers, was hosted by Molly Meldrum instead of Richard Whiteley).
As you can tell, it is heavy on the spandex and the synthesizers. Little did they know in 1981 that Cecchetto’s and Simonetti’s smash would become a party time staple. A tune for many a school disco, care home or children’s birthday party. It wouldn’t have looked out of place as a Eurovision Song Contest entry.
Over in Ossett, a struggling rock group with ties to Smokie tried to find a niche after their stint on the Eurovision Song Contest. In 1979, Black Lace won Song For Europe, becoming Great Britain’s entry at the Eurovision Song Contest in Israel. With their song Mary Ann, GB finished 17th out of 19 entrants. Israel repeated their success with Milk and Honey featuring Gali Atari and their song Hallelujah. One major criticism of Mary Ann was its similarity to Smokie’s Oh Carol, a smash hit for Chris Norman and Co. the previous year. RAK Music, Smokie’s record label weren’t too impressed.
In the end, Lace as they were known at one point – later reverting to Black Lace – went to Northern English Working Mens’ Clubs. They changed their manager to John Wagstaffe who suggested a change of creative direction. One that would give the group international fame and (to some critics) infamy.
Jollity surrounds, cheesiness abounds, superheroes astound
Under Wagstaffe’s direction, their first uncharted single was Birds Dance. This was based on The Tweets’ Birdie Song, which also inspired The Waders’ knock-off version called Qwaka Song. For that release they were known as Buzby, hoping to ride off the coat tails of the GPO’s yellow bird. In later releases, Birds Dance was rebadged as The Birdie Song. It appeared on 1984’s Party Party LP.
It was clear that Wagstaffe saw Black Lace as the sound of summer holiday music. The sort of thing that would take you back to Benidorm in three minutes and realise “why did I listen to this cack?” Or the sort of tune that through its cheesiness made for happy memories. The sort of thing you wouldn’t admit to liking instead of Supper’s Ready by Genesis or Yashar by Cabaret Voltaire.
Yet the formula worked. Superman (Gioca Jouer) earned the band a Silver Disc. It peaked at Number 9 in the UK singles chart, on a week when other acts included Culture Club (Karma Chameleon), New Order (Blue Monday) and Men Without Hats’ The Safety Dance. It had a seven-week stint in the charts, by which time it became children’s party fodder.
The promotional video was filmed at Casanovas night club in Wakefield which later appeared on The Hit Man and Her, probably when Pete Waterman couldn’t get Mr Smiths in Warrington. One of the dancers on the video was Jane McDonald. The Jane McDonald of The Cruise fame and several documentaries on Channel 5. Before she was famous, she worked at Casanovas.
The Snowmen version of Superman
In the UK, the English version was originally sung by The Snowmen (1981). Their biggest claim to fame was Hokey Cokey, which also appeared on the album Hokey Cokey Party with Superman.
The Snowmen’s version has some of the synth leanings from the Italian original, though it is a lot more raucous and passive aggressive. When I first heard Hokey Cokey, I thought it was Ian Dury. Or an impersonator of the great Stiff artiste. Instead it was session musician Martin Kershaw (who?) and a few members from the Stiff Records offices. The album didn’t chart and neither did their version of Superman.
What makes Superman a work of genius?
- Audience participation: Superman is ageless. Whether you are two years old or ninety years old, it is guaranteed to get you on the dance floor. It is the interaction in its lyrics.
- Good for cognitive functioning: Superman is a popular tune at schools and care homes and encourages people to mimic the actions (like “clap your hands”, “sneeze” and “go for a walk”).
- Cover versions: strictly speaking, Black Lace’s cover is a cover of The Snowmen’s version, yet Black Lace’s version is the definitive one.
- There’s even an adult version: yes, a rude version of Superman appears on Black Lace’s The Blue Album which also has Gang Bang (We shan’t give you the luxury of sharing this version of Superman or the song that appeared on Rita, Sue and Bob Too).
- Timelessness: all of the actions in Superman would still be everyday things in 2121 as well as 2021 – even spraying our armpits.
- TV appearances: the song was most famously used in the Steve Coogan sitcom Saxondale, in a scene called Maureen and David’s Superman Dance Off.
- That bass line: the greatest part of this song for me is its thunderous bass line near the end.
What happened next?
Superman was only the beginning of Black Lace’s assault on the singles charts. This was followed by Agadoo, a UK Number Two single that was kept off the top spot by George Michael’s Careless Whisper. It spent 35 weeks on the singles chart from the 26th May 1984 to the 19th January 1985. This was followed by Do The Conga which peaked at Number 10 on the 22nd December 1984. Agadoo inspired Spitting Image’s Number One chart single The Chicken Song (let’s face it: being lampooned on Spitting Image was a sign you had arrived in the 1980s – like being referenced by The Barron Knights was in the 1960s and 1970s).
As part of The Crowd with You’ll Never Walk Alone, they topped the chart with a charity single for the families of the Bradford City fire disaster. They made numerous appearances on BBC and ITV, but the champagne was put on ice after receiving a £100,000 tax bill.
Though not getting the hits they used to have (and a few line-up changes later), Black Lace are still going. In fact, there are two versions of Black Lace with The Original Black Lace for overseas audiences and the plain Black Lace for UK gigs.
- The Official Black Lace: and their pineapple-tastic website.
- And Then Came Agadoo: Terry Dobson’s reflections on his life with Black Lace (book published by Authorhouse, 2009).
- Dene Michael: a present-day member of the UK version of Black Lace.
It would be rude not to share this video of Superman with you, complete with the required actions.
S.V., 20 October 2021.