And so we embark on our 3rd recap. Ninety number ones gone; lots and lots more to come, don’t you worry. We’re about to reach the 1960s and, as you might have heard, things get pretty interesting during that particular decade. But wait, we get ahead of ourselves. Let’s rewind: the past thirty #1s have taken us from June 1957 through to October 1959, keeping up our run of roughly two and a half years between recaps.
I’m struggling to remember which ‘wave’ of rock ‘n’ roll we’re on. I think we’re on the 3rd wave… Or is it the 4th? At the end of the last recap we’d had Bill Haley kicking things off and then a bunch of older, established stars like Guy Mitchell and Kay Starr jumping on the bandwagon. During the last two years, then, we’ve entered the ‘Golden Age of Rock ‘N’ Roll’ and met icons such as Elvis! Buddy Holly! Jerry Lee Lewis! Connie Francis! The Everlys! Cliff! But we’ve also, more recently, seen rock ‘n’ roll become more and more diluted, more pop-ified. For every ‘Great Balls of Fire’ there’s been a ‘Diana’, for every ‘That’ll Be the Day’ there’s been an ‘Only Sixteen’. You can track this change just by using Elvis as a barometer – we’ve gone from the unmistakeable ‘Jailhouse Rock’ to the slightly cabaret-ish ‘A Fool Such as I’ in a little over a year.
On that note, there have been an abundance of decent, perfectly acceptable pop-rock #1s that I’m going to pass over completely when talking about the best and worst of the last thirty. The likes of The Kalin Twins’ ‘When’, Jerry Keller’s ‘Here Comes Summer’ and The Everly Brothers’ ‘All I Have to Do Is Dream’… You’re safe. But safe don’t win no awards! I’m also – perhaps controversially – going to resign all four of Elvis’s #1s so far to similar status. None of them have been bad – ‘One Night’ / ‘I Got Stung’ has probably been the pick of the bunch – but there have been much better (and much, much worse) records hitting the top these past couple of years.
An honourable mention too, to the handful of #1s that have felt slightly out of place during this past thirty. We had ‘The Winter of the Ballad’ – the run that started with Conway Twitty, through Jane Morgan’s ‘The Day the Rains Came’, Shirley Bassey, and finished with The Platters ‘Smoke Gets in Your Eyes’. All decent enough – very decent in the case of The Platters – but all slight outliers when compared to the prevailing style of the time.
Speaking of ‘the style of the time’… compared to the previous thirty chart-toppers, this lot have been a much more homogenous bunch. We’ve been short on instrumentals, short on film soundtracks, there’s been very little C & W, no mamboes or tangoes… just a lot of mid-range, common or garden rock ‘n’ roll. Which means it’s been hard to choose the weirdest disc because, well, very few recent hits have been terribly, or even mildly, crazy. I thought about giving it to Marvin Rainwater’s ‘Whole Lotta Woman’, because it was a song about lovin’ larger ladies and that was mildly more diverting than the ‘I love you, Yes I do…’ kind of lyrics we’ve been inundated with. But, truth be told, it’s still a pretty bog-standard rock-pop number. Not worthy of award status. Praise be, then, to Lord Rockingham’s XI for giving us the madcap ‘Hoots Mon’ in November 1958 – a moment of Caledonian craziness that is the winner of this recap’s ‘WTAF’ Award.
It has not, however, been hard to pick out any number of bland #1s. In fact, so many of them started to blend into one another that it’s been tough to narrow it down to just one. Michael Holliday’s ‘The Story of My Life’? Pretty dull. Perry Como’s ‘Magic Moments’? A ‘classic’ for sure; but pretty darn twee. Craig Douglas? Kinda cute, I guess. Jerry Keller’s ‘Here Comes Summer’… No – I’m going to give the ‘Meh’ Award, for the most forgettable chart-topper of the past thirty to… Vic Damone’s ‘On the Street Where You Live’. Just for the fact that it has been done many, many times before: an overwrought, old-fashioned relic from the pre-rock days that had no place hitting the top of the UK charts in June of 1958.
Before we get on to the best and the worst, I want to touch once more on something I mentioned a couple of posts back. The issue of ‘sexiness’… I said in the previous recap that British stars had loosened up a little and were starting to shake and shimmy like the Americans. But I kind of feel as if we’ve regressed over the past couple of years. It hit me when the Great British Rock ‘n’ Roll Hope, Cliff Richard, scored his first number one… with the cheesy, and slightly creepy ‘Living Doll’. Then Craig Douglas’s corny ‘Only Sixteen’ furrowed my brow further. I cast my eye back to Lonnie Donegan, Michael Holliday and Lord Rockingham’s XI and really started to wonder why, even though Brits were recording rock ‘n’ roll hits, they all sounded silly, a bit nudge-nudge wink-wink, slight leftovers from the Victorian music hall. I know that British pop stars will one day be cool, cooler even than the Americans, but I’m still wondering when this transformation will occur.
On to the main awards then. The Best can wait; let’s cast our eye over the Worst. In truth, there haven’t been very many terrible #1s this time round. I thought about ‘Mary’s Boy Child’, but that would have been pretty harsh on a heartfelt Christmas number. So I looked further, and saw lots of average ones, as I mentioned earlier, but nothing too excruciating. And then I remembered… Russ Conway and his piano stinkers! Do I plump for ‘Roulette’? Or ‘Side Saddle’? Decisions, decisions… By dint of it being his second #1, thus inflicting a second dose of piano-led blandness on the charts, let’s crown ‘Roulette’ as the worst, most plinky-plonky, most in need of an actual melody #1! If it had come in, say, 1954 I might not have noticed it in amongst the OTT balladry and jolly instrumentals of the pre-rock age. Coming as it did in June 1959, it stood out like a sore thumb. Sorry Russ.
And the best. The very best. Not just of this period but perhaps some of the best pop music ever recorded. These are the heights that we have, at times, scaled in recent months. I’ve whittled it down to four. ‘That’ll Be the Day’ could get it just for that intro alone, before you mention the sexy arrogance of Buddy Holly’s lyrics. ‘Who’s Sorry Now’ would be a worthy winner for bringing GRRL POWER to the top of the charts for the very first time. Bobby Darin’s ‘Dream Lover’ could get it simply for being a supremely classy record – the perfect point of contact on the rock and pop Venn diagram. But the award goes to… Goodness!… Gracious!… ‘Great Balls of Fire’! An explosive record encapsulating all that is great and good about the music we call rock ‘n’ roll, a record that speaks to the heart (and other parts further down the body) rather than the head, and the best two minutes a piano has ever had.
To recap the recap, then:
OK? Very good. On then, as they say, with the show …