Now this is more like it! As we try to wash the memory of that last chart-topper from our minds, a dose of the Big ‘O’ will do nicely.
Only the Lonely (Know How I Feel), by Roy Orbison (his 1st of three #1s)
2 weeks, from 20th October – 3rd November 1960
Dum-dum-dum-dumbee-doo-wa, Ooooh-yeah-yeah-yeah-yeah, Oh-woa-woa-woa-ahhh… Only the lonely… We haven’t heard many catchier intros in this countdown, have we?
Only the lonely, Know the way I feel tonight, Only the lonely, Know this feelin’ ain’t right… This is how you do heartbreak in a pop song. It feels somehow significant, the fact that this was the song to depose ‘Tell Laura I Love Her’ from the top of the charts. As if Roy Orbison had listened to Ricky Valance and his saccharine mulch and said ‘Hold my beer…’
Everything about this song feels like an upgrade from ‘Tell Laura…’ – the voice (that voice – one of the most unmistakeable in pop history), the lyrics, even the backing singers. But to paint this record solely as the yang to ‘Laura’s yin would be unfair. This is a great track in its own right, deserving of a place in this countdown regardless of the record it knocked from the top spot.
It’s a rock ‘n’ roll record, but with the operatic flourishes that were a trademark of Orbison’s career. There are the fluttering violins that dance around the end of each line, the deep bass drum that marks out the bridge – there goes my baby (dun dun dun dun) – and, of course, that high note at the end. His voice, which has been deep, and fairly manly, up to now, rises with each of the final lines: Maybe tomorrow, A new romance, No more sorrow, But that’s the chance… wait for it… youuuuuu gotta take… As someone who has listened to Roy Orbison for many years this almost passes me by as standard – that’s what he sounded like a lot of the time – but you have to remember that this was his first big, international hit. People in October 1960 didn’t know who he was, and they wouldn’t have heard the high note coming. The chart nerd in me feels compelled to point out that ‘Only the Lonely’ took what was, at the time and until 1985(!), the longest ever climb to #1 in the UK charts (eleven weeks) This was a slow-burner, a word-of-mouth hit that you heard about from your neighbour over the garden fence – ‘Have you heard that new song by the guy with the high-pitched voice…?’
Turns out that this mix of rock ‘n’ roll rhythms with operatic touches and emotive, melancholy lyrics was Roy Orbison’s new trademark, after an earlier rockabilly phase that had brought him limited success in the US but had failed to register over in Britain, and the record-buying public lapped it up. His next release, for example – the OTT ‘Blue Angel’ – makes ‘Only the Lonely’ sound stripped back and subtle. I bought my first Big ‘O’ Best Of at the same time as I was getting into Buddy, Chuck and co., so we go way back. He can be something of an acquired taste at times, but once you get him; you won’t forget him.
And we’ll hear from him again in a few years’ time – when he’ll stand up to the Merseybeat tsunami with a couple of his best known songs – but until then I’d recommend checking out his early sixties classics: the aforementioned ‘Blue Angel’, ‘Running Scared’, ‘Crying’ (as made super famous by Don McClean), ‘Workin’ for the Man’ and ‘Falling’ (a song that, to this day, I can’t work out if I like or not but which definitely shows off his unique voice).
We seem to be settling back into a nice rock ‘n’ roll groove in the autumn of 1960, this disc following on from the likes of ‘Please Don’t Tease’, ‘Shakin’ All Over’ and ‘Apache’. In fact, ‘Only the Lonely’ is something of an amalgam, of this new, easy goin’ rock ‘n’ roll and the string-laden, percussion-y chart toppers from earlier in the year – ‘Poor Me’, ‘Why’ and so on. A new type of pop song, perhaps? A subtle little game changer? We’ll see. Onwards!