What to make of this, then…? Just as we were getting into a groove at the top of the charts – a rocking, modish, soulful groove with cool and forward-facing #1s following similarly cool and forward-facing #1s – The Kinks, The Blue Flames, Chris Farlowe and ‘Eleanor Rigby’, a curveball is thrown our way.
Distant Drums, by Jim Reeves (his 1st and only #1)
5 weeks, from 22nd September – 27th October 1966
Gentle drums, a swaying rhythm, a crooner’s voice… I hear the sound, Of distant drums, Far away, Far away… It’s the sort of country-ish ballad that was ten-a-penny in the late fifties and early sixties. (I’d perhaps call this one country-calypso, if that’s at all possible…) But it’s a sign of how far popular music has come in a very short time that ‘Distant Drums’ sticks out like a sore thumb in late 1966.
It’s a sentimental song, about a man who hears the distant drums of war… Then I must go, And you must stay… And so he begs his beloved to marry him before he gets shipped off: Let’s share all the time we can before it’s too late… If you love me Mary, Marry me… (Gettit? ‘Mary’ – ‘Marry’?) It’s sweet. Old-fashioned. Your gran would love it. I am certain, even without checking, that Daniel O’Donnell has covered this.
Why on earth it spent over a month at the top of the charts I do not know. But there’s no need to make a big fuss about it. Yes, it’s nothing like the brilliant hits that went right before, but I’m not a snob. There’s room for all in this parish. Jim Reeves sings it beautifully, in a very understated way. And it’s worth noting that exactly one year ago, Ken Dodd was at the top of the charts – for five weeks as well, no less – with the similarly saccharine ‘Tears’. And as with Doddy, ‘Distant Drums’ was, despite the strong competition, the biggest-selling single of the year! Maybe there was something in the autumn air…
Or maybe it was because, as I’ve just discovered, Jim Reeves was dead. We have our third ever posthumous #1! But, unlike Buddy Holly and Eddie Cochran’s swansongs, Reeves had been dead for a while… A light aircraft crash, in a storm, in July 1964. Well over two years before this record hit the top spot… A bit late for a tribute, then. One other explanation is timing: that the song’s theme suddenly became prescient with escalation of the Vietnam War. Jim Reeves – ‘Gentleman Jim’ as he was known – had had plenty of chart hits before this one, both alive and dead, and so perhaps it isn’t a huge shock that one would catch the public’s imagination like this.
Whatever the reason, it means we get a little interlude in our rundown of the nation’s biggest selling songs. I’m not going to pretend that hearing this song has been a highlight of my day. If it had come in, say, 1962, in a version by Frank Ifield, I would have probably had far less patience with it… Moving on, then, without any further ado…