In which we meet the pre-eminent British popular singer of the day. And the next day. And the next. Next. Next. Basically, there will be no escaping Cliff for the following forty years…
Living Doll, by Cliff Richard & The Drifters (Cliff’s 1st of fourteen #1s / The Drifters – AKA The Shadows – 1st of twelve #1s)
6 weeks, from 31st July – 11th September 1959
In the intro to my post on Shirley Bassey’s debut #1 I gave it the big fanfare about living legends and national treasures and so on. And let’s be honest, the same applies ten times over for Sir Clifford of Richard. He will go on to utterly dominate UK pop music, remaining a genuine chart presence well into the 2000s, even if he is probably more famous today for singing during the rain at Wimbledon and for suing the BBC over the way they covered allegations of… (REDACTED).
Let’s get to the music shall we? ‘Living Doll’ begins with a natty little bass intro, and then… Well it’s rock ‘n’ roll; but not as we know it. I’ve mentioned many a time the idea of ‘US’ Vs ‘UK’ rock ‘n’ roll: British singers taking on the Yanks at their own game and slowly getting better at it. Let’s be honest, the odds were stacked against the Brits with Elvis, Buddy Holly, The Everly Brothers, Johnnie Ray et al against Lonnie Donegan and, um, Tommy Steele. And with the arrival of ‘The British Elvis’ AKA Cool Cliff, you might think that this is the moment for Britain to really grab the rock ‘n’ roll flag for herself!
Except, no. ‘Living Doll’ is an extremely lightweight record. A couple of acoustic guitars. Cliff’s simpering vocals. And that’s about it. Got myself a cryin’, walkin’, sleepin’, talkin’, living doll… Got to do my best to please her, Just cos she’s a living doll… This is a song that I could have sung a few lines from – most Brits could, no? – without ever having listened to it properly. And it’s a song that doesn’t do well under more intense scrutiny.
Yes it sounds cheesy and flimsy with a whiff of George Formby in the background. But beyond all that there’s the problem of the lyrics… In the previous chart-topper, Bobby Darin was giving us a ‘girl as dream’ narrative. Here Cliff is giving us ‘girl as doll’, and taking it very literally: Well take a look at her hair, It’s real and if you don’t believe what I say just feel… Pretty creepy… Gonna lock her up in a trunk, So no big hunk, Can steal her away from me… Eww. That’s taking a metaphor way too far and then some. She’s either literally a doll with which Cliff is romancing… Or an extremely submissive young lady over whom Cliff is aggressively over-protective. Either way…
The best bit of the song, by far, is the dreamy guitar solo which by the standards of the time is pretty long, loose and groovy. That, of course, is provided courtesy of Cliff’s long time backing band The Sha… No, wait. The Drifters. It’s actually quite simple: The Drifters were The Shadows until the US Vocal group of the same name (Ben E. King and co.) threatened legal action. They appeared as The Drifters on Cliff’s first five or so hit singles; this was their sole chart-topper before the name change.
It’s pretty easy, almost a cliché, to get stuck into Cliff as an uncool, God-bothering, 2nd rate Elvis impersonator. And I’d try to avoid doing so at all costs… If his debut #1 record didn’t kind of prove all the accusations correct. He was clearly trying to sound like Elvis. He was clearly trying to look like Elvis (just look at that quiff!). And this record is him selling out just like Elvis did. Except Elvis got a good few years of genuine rocking ‘n’ rolling in before the movie studios, the army and the burgers came a-calling. Cliff got one album. (Do give ‘Rock on With Cliff Richard’ a listen, though – it’s got some decent tracks on it.)
Anyway, that’s one down for Cliff; just thirteen more UK #1 Singles to go…