Remembering Frankie Lymon

Fifty-two years ago today, one of our youngest chart-topping artists passed away. Franklin Joseph ‘Frankie’ Lymon, the voice of The Teenagers.


(The Teenagers, with Frankie Lymon in the centre.)

He barely was – a teenager that is – when their debut hit ‘Why Do Fools Fall in Love’ made #1. Lymon was thirteen when it was recorded, and he sounds his age as you listen to it now, sixty-four years later. His unbroken voice flits like a sparrow around a doo-wop song about heartache, like a choir boy gone rogue. Listen to it below, and read my original post on it here.

(Performing the song on national TV, and bantering with Frankie Laine – a man not short of #1 singles by 1956.)\

Note how early ‘Why Do Fools…’ hit #1. Mid-1956. Only the 2nd ever rock ‘n’ roll chart-topper, after ‘Rock Around the Clock’ (not counting Kay Starr’s in-name-only ‘Rock and Roll Waltz’.) The Teenagers were knocked from the top by Doris Day, after they themselves had deposed Pat Boone. That’s where we were, when five kids from Harlem shook things up. In nearly every one of their songs – which do all sound a bit similar – a saxophone solo comes charging along, sounding as if it is hell-bent on blowing codgers like Boone away for good.

Their only other UK chart hit was the brilliantly titled ‘I’m Not a Juvenile Delinquent’, which made #12 and sounds like the theme song to a misguided government campaign aimed at errant youths. The Teenagers still tour today, Herman Santiago being the only surviving member. But this is not their story. This is Frankie Lymon’s, and he had already left the band by 1957.


(Lymon with Little Richard)

His first solo release, a cover of the thirties hit ‘Goody Goody’, was fine, but didn’t catch on. And by then, aged fifteen, Lymon was already addicted to heroin. He hadn’t had much of a childhood, he would relate in an ‘Ebony’ magazine interview in 1967, growing up in Harlem around prostitutes and pimps, smoking weed and ‘knowing’ women, all before he even joined The Teenagers. Watching him perform, you can definitely see the street-kid swagger behind the suits and the polished smiles.

(I think this is a genuinely live performance and, if so, then wow! I’m out of breath just from listening.)

The hits dried up as the fifties drew to a close, and the drugs started to take their toll. There was a steady stream of women – fake marriages, then scam marriages in Mexico, making the title of his biggest hit sound ever more prescient. His managers and label offered no help, and there clearly wasn’t much of a support network around him. Eventually he got caught up in drug charges and, rather than go to jail, he was drafted into the army.

In the forces he went clean, and sober, and every-so-often AWOL to perform tiny, low-key gigs, by this point near forgotten amongst the British Invasion acts that were dominating the Billboard Hot 100 at the time. He left the army, recorded a few demos, and by 1968 was preparing a comeback with Roulette Records.

Unfortunately, and in a tragic Hollywood ending, the day before his first recording session with his new label, Lymon was found dead on his grandmother’s bathroom floor, a needle in his arm. He was twenty-five.


You could say this about any child star that goes off the rails, but there’s it’s almost painful to watch Frankie Lymon performing with The Teenagers, the proto-boyband that brought some New York swagger to the staid singles chart of the mid-fifties, and to think what was to come.

Frankie Lymon, September 30th 1942 – February 27th 1968


259. ‘Those Were the Days’, by Mary Hopkin

From the longest number one yet… To the second longest. Five minutes plus! Picture yourself in a tavern in Leningrad, back when it still was Leningrad. Big furry hats, sturdy men, even sturdier women…


Those Were the Days, by Mary Hopkin (her 1st and only #1)

6 weeks, from 25th September – 6th November 1968

It reminds me of Petula Clark’s ‘This Is My Song’, an old-fashioned ballad with a sweeping intro. Instruments that I couldn’t begin to name jingle-jangle before the violins come in… Once upon a time there was a tavern, Where we used to raise a glass or two… It’s a song of longing and regret. The singer is reminiscing about happier times, dancing and singing down the pub. Those were the days, my friend, We thought they’d never end… If ‘bittersweet’ was a sound, then that sound would sound a lot like ‘Those Were the Days.’

I wasn’t just making up all that stuff about Leningrad – this really is based on an old Russian folk-tune. A Georgian folk-tune, actually, which had been around since the turn of the century. And you really can picture some Cossacks high-kicking in time to the steady beat, especially when we get to the dadadadas. That’s another thing that this record has in common with its predecessor ‘Hey Jude’: a chanted refrain. Except this one doesn’t drag on for four and a half minutes…

By the third verse, time has moved on. The singer stands outside the same tavern: In the glass I saw strange reflections, Was that lonely woman really me…? In the fourth verse she timidly enters the bar… Oh my friend we’re older but no wiser, For in our hearts the dreams are still the same… Do they get back together? Have one last fling for old time’s sake? Or do they just leave it at a smile? I guess we’ll never know…


As a melody, it’s pretty irresistible, coming as it does from a time before ‘pop music’ existed. It sounds nostalgic, like you’ve heard it before, somewhere, sometime… It feels as if it should be from a musical. It was also produced by one Paul McCartney, who may have popped up once or twice already on this countdown. He’d known the tune for years, and finally chanced upon Mary Hopkin as a singer. She was barely eighteen, and looks every bit the sixties flower-power girl. Long hair, bare feet, that kind of thing. ‘Those Were the Days’ was her first, and by far her biggest hit. She would go on to have four more Top 10 singles in the next couple of years, and still records to this day.

In one way, this song stands out as odd. It’s sentimental, old-fashioned, a bit cheesy… But in another way it is very late sixties: there are folk-rock touches (the ‘B’-side was even a cover of The Byrds’ ‘Turn! Turn! Turn!’) and some very Beatlesy flourishes (the horns that come in midway through, for example). Plus, this is 1968, and anything goes at the top of the charts this year. There have been some weird chart-toppers, and some weird ones are still to come…

258. ‘Hey Jude’, by The Beatles

Buckle up and make yourselves comfortable, cause we’ve hit our longest number one single yet. One of the longest ever. Seven minutes and ten seconds of Beatlesy goodness.


Hey Jude, by The Beatles (their 15th of seventeen #1s)

2 weeks, from 11th – 25th September 1968

It starts off in beautiful simplicity. Just Paul and a piano. Hey Jude, Don’t make it bad… Take a sad song, And make it better… You’re there, in the studio. You can picture his face as he sings. Remember, To let her into your heart, Then you can start, To make it better…

I love the way the instruments are slowly added into the mix. Before you know it there’s a tambourine, a guitar, then backing vocals and Ringo’s drums. Hey Jude, Don’t be afraid, You were made to, Go out and get her… It sounds like an encouragement to a friend, to go and get the girl he loves, but it was inspired by John’s separation from his first wife Cynthia. Paul wrote it to comfort their son Julian (Julian – Jules – Jude). John, however, claimed that it was about him, and that the song’s lyrics were Paul’s blessing to him and Yoko Ono. Others still – mainly McCartney’s exes – have claimed that it was written about them. Who knows? A great song means something different to everyone.

And this is a great song. I’ve always liked the bridge best: And anytime you feel the pain, Hey Jude, Refrain…  It’s almost, without wanting to sound hopelessly pretentious, spiritual. Pop music as hymn. If I were religious, I’d go to churches where they sang ‘Hey Jude.’ I gave Paul McCartney a hard time in my post on ‘Hello, Goodbye’, and I stand by that, but here… His voice grows ever more soulful. It’s something else – it’s undeniable.

Just over three minutes in we reach the bit that means this record will live on for ever more. When the waves finally lap over the last bit of unsubmerged land left on earth, the final sound man hears will probably be the coda of ‘Hey Jude’. Na-na-na… Nananana! Nananana… Hey Jude! It lives on at karaoke nights, in pubs, outside pubs, in football stadiums… And you can see why. It isn’t hard to remember some ‘nananana’s. Whatever language you speak. Nananana.


(‘Hey Jude’ was the 1st single released on The Beatles’ own Apple Label)

I had forgotten – having not actually listened to ‘Hey Jude’ properly for years, how crazy Paul goes over the coda. He riffs, he scats, he howls and yells. By the end he sounds as if he’s properly lost it. This was recorded at a particularly difficult time in The Beatles’ history: John spending all his time with Yoko, Ringo temporarily leaving the band… Maybe he was just letting some frustrations out.

The song starts to fade a full minute and a half before it actually ends. Does it really need to be over seven minutes long? Probably not. But at the same time: why the hell not? By this point in their careers, The Beatles could do whatever they wanted. ‘Hey Jude’ is a full two minutes forty seconds longer than the previous ‘Longest #1 Single’ title-holder, The Animal’s ‘The House of the Rising Sun’. You could play the shortest #1 – Adam Faith’s ‘What Do You Want’ – almost five times before ‘Hey Jude’ plays once. As far as I’m aware, it is still the 4th longest #1 single ever, and won’t be displaced as the longest until 1998, when Oasis will release their cover version… sorry, their completely different song… ‘All Around the World.’

And so we reach the end, finally, as the nananas fade and we are left to return to everyday life. ‘Hey Jude’ is a song that has entered the fabric of British life, of our national identity even… Paul McCartney plays it at most of his concerts, as a tribute to his long-dead song writing partner. It’s only right that it hit number one, but it seems wrong that it stayed at the top for just a fortnight. In the US it tied for the longest-ever run, at nine-weeks. That seems more appropriate. A long old run in pole position, for a long old song… Na-na-na-na!

Listen to all the previous, much shorter, #1 singles here:

257. ‘I’ve Gotta Get a Message to You’, by The Bee Gees

The Brothers Gibb’s 2nd number one picks up where their first – ‘Massachusetts’ – left off. Melancholy and minor key-ish. This time, though, with a hint of gospel about it, a touch of something more funky. I like it more than ‘Massachusetts’ (and always have done…)


I’ve Gotta Get a Message to You, by The Bee Gees (their 2nd of five #1s)

1 week, from 4th – 11th September 1968

The lyrics immediately remind me of Tom Jones’ monster hit from a couple of years back, ‘Green, Green Grass of Home’, as they concern a man condemned to die. Is it worth making a new sub-genre of chert-topper? The death row #1? Probably not. In GGGOH, the singer was dreaming in an attempt to escape his inevitable fate. But in this one, the singer is under no illusions. The last rites are being read… The preacher talked with me and he smiled, Said come and walk with me, Come and walk one more mile…

The end is nigh, but he wants to get one last message out to his beloved… I’ve just got to get a message to you, Hold on… Hold on… One more hour and my life will be through… Whether or not he manages to get the message out is never revealed. In the background some very late-sixties percussion and an organ make things sound much cheerier than they should.

Another key difference to GGGOH (something very satisfying about banging that out in caps…) is that we are left in no doubt that the singer dunnit. He killed a man – I did it to him, Now it’s my turn to die… And it might even have been a crime of passion: It’s only her love that keeps me wearing this dirt… Is she grateful, or sad, or has she already shacked up with someone else…?


For the final verse we get a key change. Which means this record about a murderer preparing to face the electric chair ends on a strangely uplifting vibe. He’s still alive at the end, and the listener is left to wonder if maybe, just maybe… I do like a song that tells a story!

As much I like this record, however, there is something irritating about how The Bee Gees sing. While not quite the falsettos from their disco phase, it’s still a bit nasal, a bit whiny, especially after the key-change. Minor quibbles, though, minor quibbles. They would score further hits with classics like ‘Words’, ‘I Started a Joke’ and ‘World’, the latter of which forever has a place in my heart as one of the very few songs that I ever managed to master on a keyboard. This can be seen as the end of The Bee Gees MK I. They will fade from view, chart-wise, for most of the early-seventies, until disco comes along and we meet them again in a decade or so.

256. ‘Do It Again’, by The Beach Boys

This is a song I’ve known for a long time, from childhood car journeys with The Beach Boys’ Greatest Hits on repeat, and ever since I first heard it I’ve been fascinated by the intro. The pulsing, grinding rhythm that draws us in, sounding like something that Prince would have rejected for being too saucy…


Do It Again, by The Beach Boys (their 2nd and final #1)

1 week, from 28th August – 4th September 1968

Apparently it is several drum sounds merged together and compressed to slightly trippy effect. It doesn’t last long, unfortunately, this electro-beat intro, as The Beach Boy’s familiar chugging surf guitars soon come in. It’s automatic, When I talk with old friends, The conversation turns to girls we knew… It’s an interesting concept, a ‘traditional’ Beach Boys song about girls, surfing, and so on, but written as a reminiscence. It’s barely four years since every song they released was about girls, surfing, and so on, but so much has changed…

California girls and a beautiful coastline, Warmed-up leather let’s, Get together and do it again… In some ways, it’s a run-through of the Boys’ greatest hits: vocal harmonies, oo-bee-dooos and a nifty little guitar solo. But in other ways it’s a completely different band, one that’s been through ‘Pet Sounds’ and a whole load of LSD. It’s a lot slower than, say, ‘I Get Around’, with a very droney vibe. Even the surf-rock solo is crunchy and distorted. And then it fades out with what sounds like a carpenter’s workshop, all sawing and hammering. Repairing a Woodie, perhaps…?


It’s short and sweet, a snip over two minutes long, just like its one-week run at the top of the charts. Blink and you’ll have missed The Beach Boys’ second and final number one single, in the UK at least. It’s interesting to me, and a little bittersweet, that none of the early hits that ‘Do It Again’ echoes made #1. ‘California Girls’, ‘Fun, Fun, Fun’, ‘Surfin’ Safari’ and the like all fell short. This is all that remains, an echo of more innocent times. Well, this and ‘Good Vibrations’ – one of the most famous pop songs ever recorded – but still…

Mike Love gets a hard time when people look back at The Beach Boys – the Devil to Brian Wilson’s Messiah. And a lot of its deserved: freezing other members out, resisting change (his ‘don’t fuck with the formula’ quote even has its own Wiki page), writing ‘Kokomo’… But ‘Do It Again’ is his and Brian’s baby, a call-back to when they were the biggest band in the States, selling a glossy, sun-swept vision of American life to gloomy, smoggy, faraway places like Britain.

I’ve always liked this song, even in amongst all the other biggies on their Greatest Hits, and listening to it again now I like it even more. It’s the perfect late-summer hit, as the sun goes down and you lie back in your hammock, cracking open your third beer. And it would be the perfect way to bid farewell to The Beach Boys on this countdown, by pressing play on the link below and doing it again…

255. ‘Fire’, by The Crazy World of Arthur Brown

1968 strikes again! Our next #1 kicks off with a yell straight from the sulphurous pits. I am the God of hell-fire, And I bring you…! Well, they do say that rock ‘n’ roll is the devil’s music…


Fire, by The Crazy World of Arthur Brown (their 1st and only #1)

1 week, from 14th – 21st August 1968

Fire, I’ll take you to burn…! As an opening statement, it’s pretty aggressive…. Fire, I’ll take you to learn…! Demonic horns and a Satanic organ, playing as if it were possessed, join in with the fun as the ground splits in two below our feet and we tumble into the roasting furnace. I’ll see you burn…

This is, and I mean this in the best possible way, a crazy record. The Crazy World of Arthur Brown certainly live up to their name. That it hit the top of the singles chart for a week in the summer of ’68 is something to be marvelled at, and enjoyed. It’s harsh, it’s angry… It’s an anthem dedicated to nihilism and arson: You fought hard, And you saved and earned, But all of it’s going to burn… Arthur Brown then launches into an Ohhh Noooo and a series of yelps and squawks that Axl Rose in his prime would have been proud of. Wiki lists ‘Fire’ as ‘psychedelic’, which it is… But that’s only telling a tiny part of the story. This is hair metal and shock-rock, Alice Cooper, Ozzy Osbourne and Iron Maiden, before any of that was a thing. Fire… To destroy all you’ve done…

The second verse slows down, like the soundtrack to an eerie, cheapo haunted mansion ride, before the grinding organ and horns snap back in and we head relentlessly towards the finish. We get crazed laughter, shrieks, the horns blasting ever stronger, before the winds of hell blow us on our way. You’re gonna burn…burn burn burn burnburnburn…! Apparently Brown used to perform this track while wearing a helmet that had been doused in fuel and set alight (see the pic above). Because of course he did…


They also say that the devil has the best tunes, but I’m not so sure about that being the case here. This is an amazing record, an experience; but not one that I’m desperate to repeat many more times. Perhaps it’s a truly awesome record… ‘Awesome’ in the literal sense of inspiring fear, as in the ‘awesome’ power of an atomic bomb.

I am convinced that there must have been some controversy around this disc hitting the top of the charts – that at least Mary Whitehouse and the Archbishop of Canterbury got their knickers in a twist over it – but can’t find much evidence online. It shows how far society had come in the decade or so since Elvis was getting cropped at the waist, I guess.

The Crazy World of Arthur Brown, largely Brown and organist Vincent Crane, are one-hit wonders in the truest sense. None of their other singles – either before or after – managed to chart in the UK. But their legacy lives on –  all the metal stars I listed above count them as an influence, while ‘Fire’ has been sampled by The Prodigy and Marilyn Manson. Arthur Brown still performs, aged seventy-seven, and still sets his helmet on fire…

I feel like I’ve been writing this at the end of nearly every recent post, but it bears repeating… What else has 1968 got in store for us? Surely it can’t get any weirder than this…?

254. ‘Mony Mony’, by Tommy James & The Shondells

When I first listened to this song – the preliminary listen after writing my last post – I jotted down three words that immediately came to mind. Exuberant. Throbbing. Soulful. Welcome then, to an exuberantly throbbing, soulful record.


Mony Mony, by Tommy James & The Shondells (their 1st and only #1)

2 weeks, from 31st July – 14th August / 1 week, from 21st – 28th August 1968 (3 weeks total)

It’s another number one with that 1968 sound – that fusion of Beat pop, Motown and soul that’s cropped up a few times now, in records by Love Affair, The Union Gap, The Foundations and now The Shondells. An American sound, to my ears, even though two out of the four bands just listed were British.

This one starts off with a chugging riff, like a car struggling to start or a tribe banging drums in the jungle. There are handclaps, and some nonsense lyrics: Here she comes now sayin’ Mony Mony, Well shoot ‘em down turn around come on Mony… It’s a record that can’t wait to get to the chorus: You, Make, Me, Feel, So, Good…! and the accompanying call-and-response Yeah! Yeah! Yeahs!

Just who, or what, is ‘Mony Mony’? I imagine the song as a slightly more raucous update on ‘Oh, Pretty Woman’, in which Roy Orbison saw a hottie walking down the street. Apparently, though, Tommy James was inspired to write it by a billboard in Manhattan that read M.O.N.Y, and was advertising a bank (the Mutual of New York.) So, not quite as sexy an origin story…

But they took the acronym and ran with it, and with lines like You gotta toss and turn and feel alright, yeah… it’s safe to assume that they weren’t thinking about the bank’s mortgage services. I love the funky little piano breakdown, before it rises into the final chorus and fade out, with what sounds like a Gospel choir joining in with the yeahs. It sounds like an amazing party right there in the recording studio.


I really enjoyed this song – a chorus that I knew from ‘Best of the 60s’ compilations, but which it’s been great to get to know in detail. It’s nearly three minutes long – a perfectly average runtime for a pop song – but it feels far too short. It’s a record that you can’t help tapping your feet to, a disc that is simply in love with being alive. Amazingly, it was Tommy James & The Shondells only Top 30 hit in the UK. They had two #1s in their native US (they were formed in Michigan) neither of which were ‘Mony Mony’, but for some reason never seemed to catch on over the pond.

Tommy James and co. will, though, enjoy one more #1 by proxy, when Tiffany’s cover of their 1967 hit ‘I Think We’re Alone Now’, reaches the top in 1988. In the US, her version of ‘I Think We’re Alone Now’ replaced at #1 Billy Idol’s live-version of… you guessed it… ‘Mony Mony’. How’s that for symmetry…

Listen to every #1 so far here:

253. ‘I Pretend’, by Des O’Connor

Oh dear. I thought we were past this… I thought we had waded through the easy-listening swamp and made it out alive… I was wrong. Des O’Connor sticks out an arm and drags us back in…


I Pretend, by Des O’Connor (his 1st and only #1)

1 week, from 24th – 31st July 1968

If I’ve learned one thing from the two hundred fifty three songs I’ve covered so far it’s that no matter the leading sounds of the day – be they rock ‘n’ roll, Beat, baroque, or folk – you are never more than seven feet away from an easy-listening #1. It is the genre that never dies, mainly because it isn’t a genre at all. It can adapt, morph, mimic and ultimately survive, like the cockroaches that will rule following the apocalypse.

And I have nothing against easy-listening. Nothing at all. I am here for every single one of these chart-topping hits. I approach each one with an open-mind. I loved Petula Clark’s ‘This Is My Song’, and enjoyed Engelbert’s ‘The Last Waltz’, but this… This does nothing for me. This is bland. Where’s the hook? I’m trying to find something to grab hold of, something to appreciate, but find myself clutching at thin air.

It’s a velvety, cutesy, saccharine fart of a record. Something about how the the lady he loves is cheating on him, so till then I’ll just pretend… Blah, blah, blah who cares? One day our love must end, Till then I’ll just pretend… He’s literally sitting alone, pretending that his wife is still in love with him, simpering over an empty chair, while she’s out gallivanting. God’s sake man, have some self-respect…


I have never heard this record before. I truly wonder if anyone has listened to this song in the past twenty years. Is this the most forgotten #1 ever? Maybe that’s because it’s surrounded by monster hits by The Beatles, Stones, Cliff and more. Maybe. But, tellingly, ‘I Pretend’ sneaked a week at the top after an eleven-week climb – a disc that slipped in to pole position when nobody was looking. (It did also spend a full year on the chart, though, so there clearly was an audience for it…)

To be fair, Des O’Connor was – even years later when I was a kid – a household name in the UK. He had a fanbase. He hosted chat shows and game shows throughout the sixties, seventies, eighties and nineties. He was warm, family-friendly, slightly too tanned… A kind of male Cilla Black, though her music was much more credible. I was amazed to just find out that he’s still alive… I could have sworn he’d died years ago.

Apparently he’s in pretty poor health, though, so let’s wish him the very best. His one and only number one single may be terrible, and completely out of place in mid-1968, but it’s one more number single than most of us will manage. Next up, I believe, normal service will be resumed.

252. ‘Baby Come Back’, by The Equals

I can remember very precisely the moment that I first heard this next number one, playing on our car radio when I was about fourteen. I remember it so specifically because when the DJ announced that he was about to play The Equals, my mum thought he had said The Eagles.


Baby Come Back, by The Equals (their 1st and only #1)

3 weeks, from 3rd – 24th July 1968

She then spent a very confused three minutes wondering why she had never heard this Eagles’ song before, and how she had managed to miss out on the band’s short-lived reggae phase. My mum can be quite dramatic when confused. Anyway… This is definitely not The Eagles. It’s The Equals, with ‘Baby Come Back.’ And we do welcome reggae to the top of the British singles charts!

Except, is this really reggae? Or is it rock? Reggae-rock? Or am I just assuming it’s some kind of reggae because it’s sung with a Jamaican-sounding accent? The opening, cut-glass riff is very rock, while the bouncy rhythm is – to my ears at least – quite reggae. Ding-ding-dinding-dung-ding! It’s a great intro, and it’s probably the best thing about the entire record.

Not that it’s a bad song other than that. It’s simple enough – a song in which a man implores a woman to not leave him. Come back baby don’t you leave me, Baby baby please don’t go… he sings. Come back, I said baby come back… goes the chorus. It all sounds very heartfelt until you listen carefully to the second verse, and notice that he admits to flirting around behind her back.

The Equals were a London-based band cut from the same interracial cloth as The Foundations. They had two white and three black members, the foremost of which was one Eddy Grant! I knew of him as an eighties star – he’ll feature again on the countdown in around fourteen years – but had no idea he was around in the sixties, until today. And he doesn’t have a Jamaican accent, as I suggested above – he’s originally from Guyana, in South America.


This is a fun record, one that bounces along and stays buried in your head for a while after. I like the asides as the band build towards each chorus – Hey! (Alright!) – and the free-styling towards the end, especially when one member shouts out Rude Boy! It might have stood out as even more new and refreshing, had the chart-toppers of 1968 not already been so bloody strange…

The Equals had been releasing singles since 1966 – ‘Baby Come Back’ had been released once already and done nothing. They would have a couple more Top 10s following this; but ‘Baby Come Back’ was their biggest hit by far. Not only will we meet Eddy Grant again in this countdown, but this song will top the charts again in a very different-sounding nineties version. Much more for another day, then.

I really struggled to find the original recording of this disc. YouTube has it – I think – and you can listen to it below. Spotify has every re-recording under the sun but not, as far as I’m aware, the original. Which is of no concern to anyone but me, as it has spoiled the perfection of my UK #1s Blog Playlist…

Follow my playlist below, with (almost) all the original versions of the 252 #1s encountered so far:

251. ‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash’ by The Rolling Stones

Normal service is resumed, with a bang. The sixties’ baddest band are back! After a mid-decade run where they never seemed to leave the top of the charts, this is The Stones’ first #1 since ‘Paint It, Black’ a little over two years ago. Has their sound changed while they’ve been away?


Jumpin’ Jack Flash, by The Rolling Stones (their 7th of eight #1s)

2 weeks, from 19th June – 3rd July 1968

Yes, and no. The second you press play you know it’s a Rolling Stones’ song. It’s got that vibe and that swagger – with an intro that begs to be turned up. But it’s heavier than what came before, heavier even than the pounding ‘Get Off Of My Cloud’, or the cynical ‘Paint It, Black.’ The one thing that we’ve been missing in recent months – years even – amongst all the eclectic, easy-listening, flower-power hits of ’67-’68, is finally here: some down and dirty rock ‘n’ roll.

Watch it! The lyrics are equally in your face: I was born, In a cross-fire hurricane, And I howled in the morning drivin’ rain… (or is it: at my ma in the drivin’ rain….?) Either way, it’s the story of a boy, a creature, who appears to have risen from the deep to terrorise the world… I was raised, By a toothless bearded hag… All told over the same simple, relentless riff. Some sources claim that Jagger and Richards were inspired by the latter’s taciturn gardener, Jack Dyer. Others that it was inspired by the poetry of William Blake. Keith Richard’s biographer claims that the opening lines – the ‘crossfire hurricane’ -refers to the fact that he was born during a German bombing raid in 1943.

Like many legendary rock songs, its origins are perhaps lost to the mist of time (and possibly because the band were too high to remember). Also like many legendary rock songs, the lyrics are pretty out there. The last verse goes all biblical: I fell down, To my feet and saw they bled… I was crowned, With a spike right through my head… ‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash’ was written around the same time as ‘Sympathy for the Devil’, in which they portrayed Satan as a man of wealth and taste. Were they doing the opposite to Jesus here? In the end, though, his tough back-story doesn’t matter. He’s Jumpin’ Jack Flash and life’s a gas, gas, gas… The overriding message being don’t sweat it? Things’ll turn out alright in the end? Enjoy it while it lasts.


I mentioned in a previous post – ‘The Last Time’, I think – that every time a Stones record comes along at the top it feels like your big brother’s cool but slightly terrifying friends have crashed your party. You’re floating along with your nice Manfred Mann discs and your catchy Union Gap records and then wham! – Mick and the boys rock up. They fade into ubiquity sometimes, and have certainly become caricatures of themselves in their old age, but hearing The Rolling Stones in context like this really shows how thrilling and dangerous they were. This was never my favourite song of theirs growing up, but hearing it now for the first time in a while… I’m enjoying it way more than I thought I would. And I’ve got it turned up loud.

The outro goes slightly trippy, as the band intone Jumpin Jack Flash, It’s a gas… and the organ and the guitars intertwine. At the time, this was a bit of a comeback statement. They had tried to jump on the psychedelic bandwagon with singles like ‘We Love You’ and ‘She’s a Rainbow’ and, while not commercial disasters, they weren’t monster hits like ‘Satisfaction’ either. And let’s face it, you don’t come to the Stones for hippy-love vibes, do you? You want them to rock, and rock this single certainly does. They’ve played it at pretty much every live show since. It’s their most performed song, one of their signature hits. And it’s with a tear in our eyes that we realise they only have one more chart-topper to go…