How to explain Shakin’ Stevens, to readers from foreign shores, or to readers not old enough to have experienced him in real time…?
This Ole House, by Shakin’ Stevens (his 1st of four #1s)
3 weeks, 22nd March – 12th April 1981
The twanging rockabilly in this take on ‘This Ole House’ sounds completely out of place in early 1981, after two years of sharp, spiky new-wave, and just before the New Romantics came along. Stevens’ delivery too – all energy and cheesy grins – is an outlier in this too-cool-for-school world. But while this is an unlikely hit record, it’s not unwelcome.
I can never say no to some old-fashioned rock ‘n’ roll. The production may be glossier, the guitars coming through in a warm stereo, but this is a step back to the 1950s. Is it better than Rosemary Clooney’s original, from way back in 1954…? No, probably not. But it is equally manic. That had an out of control honky-tonk piano, Shaky’s take has a distorted guitar solo: this version’s only concession to modern sounds.
He sounds like he’s having a lot of fun singing this – a song stuffed with nonsense lyrics about fixing shingles and mending window-panes – and because of this it is very hard not to have fun while you listen. The hipsters may have rolled their eyes, and turned their Ultravox records up, but the grannies and the kids clearly lapped it up. Just think… The young ones who bought Clooney’s version would have been hitting fifty by now. We have covered a lot of ground here!
I did wonder if this might have been Shakin’ Stevens debut: a smash hit from nowhere, perhaps after winning a TV talent show. But I couldn’t have been more wrong – he had been plugging away for well over a decade, releasing singles in the UK and Europe throughout the ‘70s. Born in Cardiff, he’d been a milkman, before forming his band The Sunsets. They’d supported The Rolling Stones of all people, in 1969. By the mid-seventies he was impersonating Elvis in the West End before finally scoring a minor chart hit with ‘Hot Dog’ in early 1980.
After that the rise was meteoric, and it’s hard to begrudge someone who’s waited that long and worked so hard for success. But. This still doesn’t explain why this Welsh Elvis finally became one of the biggest stars in the land… Maybe the rock ‘n’ roll revival that was gave us Showaddywaddy and Mud a few years back never truly went away? Maybe he was the chart-friendly face of the post-punk rockabilly scene? Or maybe it’s another ‘Shaddap You Face’: some light-relief after weeks of mourning John Lennon? I don’t know.
One thing’s for sure – if this cover of a near thirty-year-old song was a one-hit wonder then it would make perfect sense. A flash in the pan, a moment of frivolity. Except, it’s the first of four chart-toppers for a thirty-something ex-Elvis impersonator, who was on his way to becoming the biggest-selling British singles artist of the decade. More from Shaky, then, very soon…