Random Runners-Up: ‘The Son of Hickory Holler’s Tramp’, by O.C. Smith

The late sixties were one of the most eclectic periods for the UK charts, as the classic mid-sixties beat sound fractured, and a multitude of different genres filled the void.

‘Son of Hickory Holler’s Tramp’, by O. C. Smith

#2 for 3 weeks, from 3rd-24th July 1968, behind ‘Baby Come Back’

Which means country/soul oddities like this were free to spend three weeks at #2, behind the Equals’ reggae-rock chart-toppers. I say ‘country/soul’ because, while the sound is pure rhythm and blues, with a brilliantly funky bass-line, the story it tells is one of pure country woe…

Oh the path was deep and wide, From footsteps leading to our cabin, Above the door there burned a scarlet lamp… Daddy’s a drunk who packed up and left, leaving the weeds high and the crops dry so, yes, mum’s turned to whoring to feed her fourteen children. And yet, it’s an overwhelmingly positive song. Yes, I’m the son of Hickory Holler’s tramp! announces O. C. Smith, unashamed of how his mother made ends meet.

The neighbours did nothing to help, but did plenty of talking, and judging. The children didn’t notice though – all we cared about was momma’s chicken dumplings... – and grew up loved and nurtured. Mum’s dead now, Smith sings, but every Sunday fourteen roses arrive at her graveside. By the end, as Smith declares once again just who he’s the son of… Well, if there isn’t a tear in your eye.

It’s a very progressive song – probably long before ‘progressive’ became a thing – and I wonder why such a big hit has been erased from the sixties canon? Maybe it’s because the subject matter is just a little too on the nose, a little too celebratory towards the world’s oldest profession? Either way, I’m glad the date-generator threw up this forgotten hit. Ocie Lee Smith had many chart entries on the Billboard chart in the sixties and seventies, but in Britain he is a bone-fide one-hit wonder. He died in 2001.

One last number two for you tomorrow, and it’s one we can all sing along to…

Random Runners-Up: ‘Cloud Lucky Seven’, by Guy Mitchell

My third randomly selected #2 for the week brings us all the way back to the early weeks of 1954. Before Elvis, before the Beatles, before colour TV and motorways, there was Guy Mitchell…

‘Cloud Lucky Seven’, by Guy Mitchell

#2 for 1 week – 12th – 19th February 1954, behind ‘Oh Mein Papa’

I have a huge soft-spot for Guy Mitchell. Not only did he have a hunky, all-American boy next door vibe going on – see the pic above! – but during the early months of this blog, as I trawled through many overwrought and overblown, and often quite dull, pre-rock #1s, Mr. Mitchell would regularly pop up with something a bit more sprightly.

‘Cloud Lucky Seven’ came right in the middle of Mitchell’s four chart-topping singles, and is a pre-rock hit by-numbers. It’s almost unbearably jaunty, the backing singers sound like drunken relatives at a wedding, and there are horns. Boy, are there horns… It’s a bit jazz, a bit swing, very music-hall, and with no hint at the rock ‘n’ roll revolution that’s just around the corner.

What saves it from sounding ridiculous to modern ears is Guy himself. He isn’t, to be honest, the best technical singer. He’s no Al Martino, or Eddie Fisher, but his voice has a throaty, homely charm. He sounds like he’s having fun, as if he’s well-aware that he’s singing a load of tosh (see also ‘She Wears Red Feathers’) and being paid handsomely to do so.

Lyrically, the song is about love as clouds (that’s another pre-rock trick: love as birds chirping, fluffy clouds, twinkly stars…) Cloud one is where you land when you meet that special someone, while cloud lucky seven is the cloud nearest heaven… Which means… This is actually a song about getting laid?? Those pre-rockers were just as horny as those that came later, they just had to hide it behind bizarre metaphors involving clouds. Which means, as he belts out that there’s one more cloud to go…! it’s not only the best bit of the song; but you can almost hear the knowing wink. Guy, you sly dog, you!

Two more #2s to come…

Random Runners-Up: ‘Are You Sure?’, by The Allisons

Part II of this week’s runners-up feature, and the random date generator throws up one of the longest-running #2s in chart history…

‘Are You Sure?’, by The Allisons

#2 for 6 weeks, from 9th-23rd Mar / 30th Mar–27th Apr 1961 (behind ‘Walk Right Back’ / ‘Ebony Eyes’ and ‘Wooden Heart’)

Six weeks, over the course of two months, is a long and very unlucky amount of time to be marooned in second place, but it will happen if you’re up against two of pop music’s most famous acts.

This is a slice of early-sixties pop that probably sounded a little old-fashioned even when it hit the charts. The staccato strings and jaunty pace ape Adam Faith‘s hits, which in turn borrowed heavily from Buddy Holly’s posthumous chart-topper ‘It Doesn’t Matter Anymore’. The Allisons are also clearly going for an Everly Brothers vibe, but when you listen to the Brothers’ record that kept this off the top then there’s no contest. It’s pleasant enough, and over in a trice; but it’s a reminder of why The Beatles couldn’t come fast enough…

Goodbye, Farewell, I’m not sure what to do… Compare and contrast the well-mannered harmonising here with the Greek-stomping hit I featured yesterday, ‘Bend It!’. Only five and a half years separate these two songs, but they just so happen to have been the most fertile five years in pop music history.

The Allisons were, perhaps surprisingly, not actual brothers. Bob Day and John Alford were simply marketed that way. And this record has a particular claim to fame, perhaps even more important than its long run at number two… It was the first big British Eurovision hit single. The Allisons represented the UK at the 1961 contest, finishing in second place. It’s fairly middling as Eurovision singles go: not the best, but far from being the worst… Yet it was the duo’s only real hit, though they would continue performing for many years afterwards.

Next up, tomorrow, and we’re going even further back in time…

Random Runners-Up: ‘Bend It!’, by Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Tich

I’m going to spend the next week in the company of some songs that almost featured on this blog in their own right. Instead, all these hits peaked in the most frustrating position of all… #2. As with this feature last year, they’ve been chosen at random – honest – and the date generator has thrown up some interesting choices. Two songs I’ve never heard of, a couple that I’m acquainted with, and one that nearly everyone on this planet knows word for word… Kicking us off, here’s one I’m acquainted with:

‘Bend It!’, by Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Tich

#2 for 2 weeks, from 6th-20th October 1966 (behind ‘Distant Drums’, by Jim Reeves)

One of the kookiest bands of the decade – in a decade that wasn’t short on kooky bands – sat in second place for a fortnight with this Greek-sounding foot-stomper. Bend It! Bend It! they exhort… Just a little bit… It’s all about two people fitting together, like a jigsaw puzzle. It’s all a little suggestive – suggestive enough to get it banned and hastily re-recorded in the US.

Like many of DDDBM&T’s hits, ‘Bend It!’ doesn’t follow standard pop song conventions. Each verse works its way up to crashing, plate-smashing crescendo, before settling back down to a woozy stomp. Apparently it was inspired by ‘Zorba’s Dance’ – that tune you hear in every Greek restaurant. I’d say it was more than just ‘inspired by’ that earlier hit…

Still it’s a fun tune. Dave Dee and pals knew how to keep it interesting. A year or so after this they scored their only chart-topper, the epic ‘Legend of Xanadu’. That was another fun one, and fairly unique for the band in that the title wasn’t followed by an exclamation mark. They also scored Top 5 hits with the thumping ‘Hold Tight!’ (their breakthrough and my favourite), ‘Okay!’, and ‘Zabadak!’

The fact that this single featured on an album called ‘If Music Be the Food of Love… Then Prepare for Indigestion’ is both brilliant, and a fitting summary of the band’s approach to making pop music. Try everything once! It’s just a shame that they seem to have slipped from the official sixties pantheon.

Another #2 is up tomorrow…

457. ‘Geno’, by Dexys Midnight Runners

Our next number one starts off with some live chanting, and a short, sharp horn riff, giving the impression that we’re heading off in the same 2-tone, ska direction that The Specials took us… Until it switches tack and suddenly we’ve got a brassy, soulful saxophone line leading the way.

Geno, by Dexys Midnight Runners (their 1st of two #1s)

2 weeks, 27th April – 11th May 1980

And that’s not the only abrupt shift over the course of ‘Geno’ – it’s a song that’s chopped up into lots of little bits. Lots of catchy little chunks. There are the woozy verses… Back in sixty-eight in a sweaty club… with lyrics that need serious Googling thanks to lead-singer Kevin Rowland’s unique delivery… Before Jimmy’s Machine and the Rocksteady Rub…

It’s a potted history of the band, or of Rowland’s formative years, bunking school and sneaking in to clubs to see soul legend Geno Washington step on stage, swinging his towel high… Then the tempo swings again, and there’s an insistent post-punk drive to the middle-eight. Academic inspiration, You gave me none… And then there’s the live chanting, which is actually sampled from a Van Morrison live album.

When writing these posts, I usually jot down my impressions on a song without looking at any other sources. You know, if you read that such-and-such a song is included in the Rolling Stone magazine’s Top 500 of all time, then it might influence your judgement… But with this record, I’m a bit stumped. The components are catchy, the oh-oh-oh Geno hook is great, but I’m struggling to place it.

It’s another insistent record, yet another chart-topper from ’79-’80 that is brimming with confidence and with ideas. Listening to this era’s chart-toppers is like going to an art school’s open day and being performed at by some very confident young wannabes. It’s all very impressive; but it can get a bit much.

So, do I like this song? Should I be enjoying this? The consensus seems to be that this is a classic… but that’s probably just because the Runners’ next chart-topper is so overplayed and people want to look cool. I think the big negative here is that the song’s topic is quite niche – a description of a gig – and the vocals so unintelligible. Still, it’s not boring, and that is always something.

This was just the second single that Dexys Midnight Runners’ had ever released, after their formation in Birmingham in 1978. Their name is the shortened version of Dexedrine, an amphetamine popular in clubs at the time, and which is referenced in this song: This man was my bomber, My dexys, My high… Oh Geno! It’s also the reason why there’s no apostrophe in the band’s name, which goes against all my English teaching instincts… They will be back, in good time, with one of the decade’s signature hits. One that may be overplayed, but that I will have no problem justifying as a classic!