285. ‘Spirit in the Sky’, by Norman Greenbaum

In my last post, after deciding that I could take no more of Dana’s execrable ‘All Kinds of Everything’, I prayed that the seventies would get going, and soon…

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Spirit in the Sky, by Norman Greenbaum (his 1st and only #1)

2 weeks, from 26th April – 10th May 1970

Well here we are. I’d suggest that this might the moment the new decade truly kicks off, with a record facing right towards the future. It all starts with a fuzzy, scuzzy guitar riff, with plenty of echo, as if it’s being recorded from the end of a very long hallway. Then in come the stomping drums, and the catchy handclaps, and you realise that you might be witnessing the first glam rock number one.

When I die, And they lay me to rest, Gonna go to the place that’s the best… Several recent #1s have been concerned with death, dying and the end of the world. But ‘Spirit In the Sky’ puts a more positive spin on it. Going up to the spirit in the sky… Norman Greenbaum has a Calvinist’s assurance that he’s heading straight for heaven.

Never been a sinner, Never sinned, I got a friend in Jesus… He’s definitely confident. But now for the big question… Is this a religious record? Or is he taking the piss? I’d like to see it as a satire of the type of Christian who believes they’ll get to heaven, even though they’ve spent most of their time on earth being a dick.

Plus, it doesn’t sound like a Christian song. It sounds sleazy and dirty, with two long, heavy guitar solos – not something you’d hear on the organ in church. It feels like ages since we’ve had a proper guitar solo at the top of the charts, not since ‘Honky Tonk Women’, last summer. Greenbaum was in fact, Jewish, and had decided to write a ‘gospel’ song just to see if he could. He finished it, he claimed, in fifteen minutes. And, yeah, the lyrics are pretty basic. But that’s probably what’s given this record its longevity – the fact that it could be a one-dimensional religious song just as much as it could be a cynical piss-take. To this day it remains a popular choice for funerals…

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I love that this isn’t a record that rushes. It stretches its two little verses and chorus out over four minutes, with plenty of bluesy riffing and glam-rock stomping, and what sounds like a cash-register opening and closing, opening and closing. It’s also the perfect song for the turn of this new decade, as if the optimism of the summer of love has soured and burned itself out on acid. The sentiment is still there; but the sound has been distorted.

Norman Greenbaum was a blues/folk singer from Massachusetts who burst out of nowhere with this monster hit, and then retreated back into anonymity. He lives these days in California. ‘Spirit In the Sky’ is probably one of pop music’s most famous one-hit wonders, the song that people would go for if they had name such a record.

In fact, ‘Spirit In the Sky’ will have a more successful chart career than its creator. We will meet it two more times at the top of the charts, in an eighties and then a noughties guise. It’s a great song, one that resonates to this day, one that I’ve been aware of since I was very young. And one that stands out even more in this countdown – like a sparkly beacon of light – sandwiched as it is between two truly terrible songs… The second of which is up next.

284. ‘All Kinds of Everything’, by Dana

We are only four #1 singles into the 1970s, and we already have a contender for the worst chart-topper of the decade. Prepare yourselves…

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All Kinds of Everything, by Dana (her 1st and only #1)

2 weeks, from 12th – 26th April 1970

The intro comes in like the theme-tune to an educational show, aimed at nursery school kids. You brace for something bad, but nothing can quite prepare you for just how bad it’s going to be. Snowdrops and daffodils, Butterflies and bees, Sailboats and fishermen, Things of the sea… The entire song is a list. A list of the things that remind the singer of her special someone. Seagulls, And aeroplanes, Things of the sky… (Seagulls? Who sees a seagull and thinks of their beloved? Maybe he saved her from one that was trying to steal her chips?) All kinds of everything, Remind me of you…

Literally everything reminds her of him. Insects, the wind, wishing wells, morning dew, neon lights, postcards, grey skies or blue… Everything. It just doesn’t work. These are lyrics that could have been written by a ten-year-old (though, actually, I teach ten-year-olds, and it’s insulting of me to think they couldn’t write something better than this.) The only way this song works is if the singer is a wide-eyed child, no older than thirteen.

And, to be fair, Dana does have a very innocent, childlike voice. She sells the drivel that she’s singing, in her lilting Irish accent, and sounds like she believes in it… (*Edit* She was eighteen when ‘All Kinds of Everything’ was released. Far too old.) Things take a slightly creepy turn when she starts to sing of dances, romances, things of the night… And you think, be careful Dana, I know what happens to young Irish girls that find themselves ‘in trouble’. I’ve seen ‘Philomena’…

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This was a hit thanks to the Eurovision Song Contest – an evening famous for terrible music. But not this type of terrible. Eurovision is over the top, camp, cheesy glitz. We’ve had one winner hit #1 so far – Sandie Shaw’s ‘Puppet on a String’ – as well as Cliff’s ‘Congratulations’, which took the runners-up position. Neither of those records were very credible, but they were fun. This, though, isn’t interesting terrible or fun terrible… It’s just terrible terrible. And yet… it won. The rest of Europe heard ‘All Kinds of Everything’ and though, yeah, go on then.

Dana Rosemary Scallon is from Derry, in Northern Ireland, and grew up in London. She represented Ireland at Eurovision, though, and got them their first ever win. In return, she received death threats from the IRA, incensed by the fact a British girl was representing the Republic. (Or maybe they just really didn’t like the song either…)

‘All Kinds of Everything’ was Dana’s first big hit, though she had been releasing music since 1967. She would have hits in Ireland, and in Europe, throughout the seventies, but her star slowly waned. By the eighties she had turned to more traditional, Christian music before she was elected as a member of the European Parliament for Connacht-Ulster in 1999. She still records music (in 2007 she released an album called ‘Good Morning Jesus!’, no less.)

Well then. It’s been a scattergun start to the seventies. Like I said, we’re only on the 4th number one and we’ve already had some catchy, no-nonsense pop, a grizzled actor and a genuine classic at the top. And now this… The charts come and go in peaks and troughs. We’re definitely hitting a bit of a trough through the tail-end of ‘69 and into the seventies. But then, the golden days of the swinging sixties couldn’t last forever, could they? We will wait with bated breath for the 1970s to spring fully into life…

283. ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’, by Simon & Garfunkel

A couple of times already, I’ve written about pop music as hymn. ‘Hey Jude’ was one. Here’s another. The one, and only, British chart-topping single for America’s foremost pop duo. (Sorry Don and Phil, Hall and Oates…)

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Bridge Over Troubled Water, by Simon & Garfunkel (their 1st and only #1)

3 weeks, from 22nd March – 12th April 1970

I’m only going to write good things about ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’, but I have to get off my chest first and foremost that I didn’t always like this song. It was a big presence in my childhood – my parents are big fans – but for a long time I thought it was a bit proper, a bit overwrought, a bit… too much like a hymn! Art Garfunkel certainly does enunciate his lines properly (the cut-glass ‘t’ in when tears are in your eyes…) and, if you were being cruel, he does sound a little like a choir-boy.

But you’re allowed to make dubious musical choices when you’re young (*cough* Kid Rock *cough*). I have since come to see the error of my ways. This is an undeniable classic, from the understated confidence of the opening piano, to the giant crescendo of an ending.

And, fittingly for a song that sounds angelic, the lyrics are apparently sung by an angel. Someone looking out for you, someone who’s on your side. Like a bridge over troubled water, I will lay me down… They will follow you even at your lowest ebb, down and out on the streets, as darkness comes. Theories abound that the voice singing is that of heroin, the drug, and that the listener is an addict, which would be a spectacular twist in such a Christian sounding song. Simon and Garfunkel have always denied it.

After two verses of just voice and piano, in come the drums, like gunshots in the distance. And we start to build… I think the moment that this goes from being a great song and becomes one of the greatest is when Art’s voice dips: Oh, If you need a friend… Then the chorus comes in, and what was a simple ballad has grown into something massive without you even really noticing. Suddenly it’s ending with strings, and cymbals, and what sounds like fireworks. Suddenly it’s midnight on New Year’s Eve.

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It’s superb. It’s timeless. It’s a classic. To think I used to prefer ‘Cecilia’. Seriously, though, I think ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ does sometimes lose something in its ubiquity. Twice in the past few years – decades after it originally hit #1 – the song has reached the top of the UK charts in the form of well-intentioned but fairly dreadful charity singles. It’s kind of easy to lump this record in with other easy-listening, uplifting MOR hits, but that would be a mistake.

And, like many of the best pop songs, there’s a friction working under the surface of ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’. Simon and Garfunkel weren’t the best of friends by this point, and would split up later in the year. Simon apparently resents the fact that he wrote their biggest hit but Garfunkel gets remembered for singing it. When he performed it on his farewell tour, in fact, he introduced the song by saying “I’m going to reclaim my lost child.”

Actually, I have to confess that I’ve been slow to realise the merits of not just this song, but of Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel’s entire back-catalogue. I was force-fed them on childhood car journeys and, while I’ve come to recognise that ‘The Sound of Silence’, ‘Mrs. Robinson’ and ‘Homeward Bound’ are great, and ‘The Boxer’ a work of art, I still find the likes of ‘I Am a Rock’, ‘America’ and ‘Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M.’ a bit twee. I can’t stand their version of ‘El Condor Pasa’. And part of me is still seven-years-old, and still loves the outright catchiness of ‘At the Zoo’ and ‘Cecilia’. In fact, there probably is no other act about which I am so undecided. I genuinely have no idea whether or not I like Simon and Garfunkel! I do definitely like ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’, though, and definitely think you should press play below and enjoy it one more time…

Top 10s – The 1950s

Time for a Top 10… Usually I rank the ten best singles from a particular artist (last time it was The Kinks) but I thought I’d fiddle with my criteria a little, and rank my favourite #1 singles from an entire decade.

Starting with the singles chart’s very first decade. Back where it all began, when rock ‘n’ roll was but a twinkle in Elvis’s eye. The list is in chronological order – not ranked in order of preference – and to choose the songs I went back and read through my recaps to see which ones I dug at the time, live, as it were…

So, without further ado, the ten best #1 singles of the 1950s, according to me:

1. ‘Look at That Girl’, by Guy Mitchell – #1 for 6 weeks in Sept/Oct 1953

Only the 12th-ever number one single, from one of the decade’s biggest chart stars, and a runner-up in my first recap. This was the very first whiff of rock ‘n’ roll at the top of the UK charts (a very faint whiff, but still) and I think it appealed more than it probably should have because I’d waded through so much Eddie Fisher and Mantovani to get to it. Still, a catchy, upbeat tune. As I wrote in my original post:

“It sounds to me as if a battle is taking place here, between traditional easy-listening and the burgeoning rock ‘n’ roll movement. On the one hand you’ve got the usual twee backing singers and floaty trumpets, parping away at the end of each line; on the other you have the hand claps and the guitar solo.”

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2. ‘Such a Night’, by Johnnie Ray – #1 for 1 week in April/May 1954

Johnnie Ray was known for his emoting, which lent him two spectacular nicknames: ‘The Prince of Wails’ and ‘The Nabob of Sob’. But for his 1st of three #1s he was overcome with a slightly more enjoyable emotion… lust! By far the sauciest number one of the pre-rock era, I awarded it ‘Best Chart-Topper’ in my 1st recap. I’d go as far as saying it was the best #1 single ever… Until 1957 came along. My original post is here:

“…what makes it, and elevates it to a classic, are Ray’s vocals. Like Doris Day before him there’s an effortlessness to his voice that draws you in and yanks you along. But his voice is nothing like the clean-cut, honeyed tones of Miss Day. ‘Such a Night’ isn’t being sung here – it’s being ridden, it’s being humped… it’s being performed!”

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3. ‘Mambo Italiano’, by Rosemary Clooney & The Mellomen – #1 for 3 weeks in Jan/Feb 1955

I remember noting, back in the early days of the charts, that it felt like the girls were having all the fun. Guys were being boringly earnest – Al Martino, Eddie Fisher, David Whitfield all proclaiming overwrought, undying love over heavy orchestration. Meanwhile Rosemary Clooney, in her 2nd #1, was singing in cod-Italian about fish bacalao (which is Portuguese, but whatever.) It’s a song that resonates to this day, with a 00s remix and a 2011 pastiche by Lady Gaga. I named it a runner-up in my first recap:

“…while this is a mambo record, sung by an easy-listening singer-slash-actress, this is rock ‘n’ roll. It may be fun and funky, but it just about manages to retain an air of cool around all the silliness. While we were waiting for Bill Haley to come along and kick-off things off, the ideals and attitudes, if not the actual sounds, of rock ‘n’ roll were being sneaked in right under our noses.”

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4. ‘Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White’, by Perez ‘Prez’ Prado & His Orchestra – #1 for 2 weeks in April/May 1955

Another saucy slice of Latin pop, which I named the very best song in my 2nd recap! Again, my opinion of it was probably exaggerated because of all the pre-rock easy-listening mulch surrounding it. It is catchy, though. Just you try not swaying along. Can’t be done! I tried summing up the record’s appeal in my original post

“…it allows Janet and John from Southend to draw close and to feel one another’s bodies, taught and trembling from two and a half minutes of intense mambo.”

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5. ‘Dreamboat’, by Alma Cogan – #1 for 2 weeks in July 1955

The 3rd #1 from 1955, making it officially the best year of the decade… (Hmm…) ‘Dreamboat’ is just a spectacularly fun pop song, sung with a giggle and a wink by perhaps the biggest British female star of the pre-rock age. As I wrote at the time:

“…there isn’t much else to ‘Dreamboat’ -it’s a fun little ditty. Cogan sings it well, with the perfect pronunciation we’ve come to expect but also with a light, playful touch that’s been missing from many of the number ones so far.”

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6. ‘Why Do Fools Fall in Love’, by The Teenagers ft. Frankie Lymon – #1 for 3 weeks in July/Aug 1956

Regrets, I have a few… One of them being that I named this classic as a runner-up to Perez Prado in my 2nd recap. What was I thinking? ‘Cherry Pink…’ is great and all, but this is timeless. The first number one by kids, for kids – the Teenagers were all, you guessed it, teenagers – is one of the catchiest, golden pop moments of all time, let alone the decade. As I wrote

“… it’s just a great song. A summer smash. It oozes New York city: steam, water spraying from a sidewalk valve, the sun blasting down, the Jets and the Sharks… (I dunno. I grew up in small town Scotland.)”

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7. ‘That’ll Be the Day’, by The Crickets – #1 for 3 weeks in November 1957

Perhaps the most obvious choice of the ten… What else needs to be said. Press play, gasp at the spectacular intro, and enjoy two and a half minutes of rock ‘n’ roll perfection…

“…Buddy Holly’s voice dances and flirts – toys, almost – with the listener. He coos, he pauses, he growls… The Crickets play tightly, but also very loosely. There’s a great, rough-around-the-edges feel to this record that contrasts with the polished cheese of Paul Anka’s ‘Diana’, whose bumper run at the top this track ended.”

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8. ‘Great Balls of Fire’, by Jerry Lee Lewis – #1 for 2 weeks in January 1958

But… I didn’t name ‘That’ll Be the Day’ as one of the very best chart-toppers. Oh no. In my 3rd recap, that honour was reserved for The Killer. On any given day, I could wake up and prefer ‘Great Balls…’ to ‘That’ll Be the Day’, or vice-versa. What’s the point in debating?  These two records were nailed-on to make my 50’s Top 10. Pure rock ‘n’ roll greatness…

“…It’s just an absolute blitz, an assault on the senses, a two-minute blast which takes rock ‘n’ roll up another notch.”

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9. ‘Who’s Sorry Now’, by Connie Francis – #1 for 6 weeks in May/June 1958

A spot of schadenfreude in the decade’s sassiest #1 single. Connie got dumped, and is now taking great pleasure that the tables have turned on her ex in his new relationship. You had your way, Now you must pay, I’m glad that you’re sorry now… Who says girls in the 50’s were all sweetness and apple pie? The twang in her voice when she launches into the final verse is something to behold. As I wrote at the time…

“A lot of the female artists we’ve met previously on this countdown have been cute, and flirty, and fun to listen to – Kitty Kallen, Kay Starr, Winifred Atwell… But no girl has brought this level of spunk to the table.”

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10. ‘Dream Lover’, by Bobby Darin – #1 for 4 weeks in July 1959

Last up –  a record that encapsulates everything great about the 1950s, mixing rock ‘n’ roll with swing, doo-wop and a touch of pre-rock crooning, to create pop perfection. Another runner-up to Jerry Lee in my 3rd recap, but there’s no shame in that. In my original post, I wrote:

“…I don’t want to really write any more about this record. I want to leave it there. Minimalist. This is where easy-listening and pop collide to create a seriously classy song.”

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And there we have it! The ten best #1 singles of the 1950s!