If you enjoyed the OTT angst of our previous #1 – Woaah-oo-wooah-oo-woaah… ‘You Don’t Know’ – then you’ll probably love this next one. Probably. Because while Helen Shapiro coyly flirted with melodrama on her hit, this next disc grabs melodrama by the hand and elopes with it.
Johnny Remember Me, by John Leyton (his 1st and only #1)
3 weeks, from 31st August – 21st September / 1 week, from 28th September – 5th October 1961 (4 weeks total)
Picture the scene. A rainy, misty moor. Wind whistling across the heather. A galloping rhythm introduces the recently bereaved John Leyton. I hear the voice of my darlin’, The girl I loved and lost a year ago… Then we hear said voice of his late love… Johhnnnnyyy Remember Meeeee…. straight from the cheapo ghost house at the local carnival. Off the top of my head, this is the first and perhaps only #1 to feature the ‘voice’ of a dead person.
Well it’s hard to believe I know, But I hear her singing in the sighin’ of the treetops, Way above me… I’d like to point out here that moors tend not to have many trees – what with them being bleak and open spaces – but I feel that trying to apply logic to this song might be missing the point. As it progresses I’m on the fence. This is clearly a ridiculous song. But is it good-ridiculous; or bad-ridiculous?
One moment sways it for me: when poor, bereaved John lets rip with a Yes, I’ll always remember…! He doesn’t sound like he particularly wants to keep remembering her; but she does insist on speaking to him from the treetops. Till the day I die, I’ll hear her cry, Jooohhnnnny remember meeee… He goes on, in the final verse, to describe that while he’s sure he’ll find another love, he is equally sure that he’ll never be allowed to forget his first love. She’ll always be there… Joooohhhnnnnyyyy…. I love that. Who knows, maybe the singer is the one who killed her off, and it’s his conscience he can hear in the wind…? It’s like a full Gothic novel in under three minutes, this song.
What to make of all this, then? I can’t file it under ‘Novelties’ – the musicianship is too good, and the lyrics are clearly heartfelt. But at the same time… Who was buying this and taking it seriously? It’s extremely camp – a word that I’ve found myself writing quite a lot in recent entries (‘Surrender’, ‘You’re Driving Me Crazy’, ‘Tell Laura I Love Her’…) Turns out people in the early-1960s had a much higher tolerance for camp than we do now. Or at least, they clearly didn’t think of this stuff as ‘camp’. They took this song at face value – the BBC banned it, for God’s sake, due to all the references to death – and connected with the sentiment. In the intervening fifty-eight years since ‘Johnny Remember Me’ became a huge hit record, we’ve become a much more cynical, irony-loving people. This song just wouldn’t work in 2019.
This is, of course, another dreaded Death-Disc! Dun-dun-dun! That oh-so early sixties phenomenon. It joins ‘Running Bear’, ‘Tell Laura I Love Her’ and ‘Ebony Eyes’ to become the fourth death disc to hit the top in the UK… But it’ll be the last. And, for what it’s worth, I think this is the best of the four. It’s mad, it’s OTT and then some; but it grabs your attention and doesn’t let go till it’s done. John Leyton was actually an actor by trade, starring at the time in an ITV drama in which he played a rock star. Said rock star sang this song in one episode and, hey presto!, it became a real-life hit. Leyton had very few others in his singing career, but once he returned to acting he did star in one of the most famous British films of all time, ‘The Great Escape’ (you’re humming the theme already, aren’t you?)
Perhaps worthy of more note than Leyton himself is the fact that this disc was produced by Joe Meek, a man who was dragging rock music forward thanks to his innovation in the recording studio. He overdubbed, he sampled, he added lots of echo and reverb, using his recording equipment like an extra instrument. The real stars of this song – the eerie atmosphere and the shrill voice of the ‘dead’ woman – all stem from him, and we’ll hear from Meek again before long in this countdown. Along with Del Shannon’s recent ‘Runaway’, and its use of the Musitron, we’re starting to get a glimpse of the future of pop music as the sixties unfold. What started off as a funny, campy, Halloweenish gimmick of a record is actually pointing the way forward… Listen carefully and you can just about hear it beckoning… Joooohhhnnnnyyyy….