231. ‘Somethin’ Stupid’, by Nancy Sinatra & Frank Sinatra

We are still stuck in the seventh circle of easy-listening hell, it seems. In calendar terms, it’s now getting on for a good half-year of dullness…

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Somethin’ Stupid, by Nancy Sinatra (her 2nd and final #1) & Frank Sinatra (his 3rd and final #1)

2 weeks, from 13th – 27th April 1967

And I have to admit that I thought this latest chart-topper would be better. It’s a song I know, one that’s ingrained in popular culture, and one which had a second wind thanks to a certain ex-Take That singer and an Australian actress when I was at high-school, but one that I’d never really paid much attention to.

The main problem with it, I think, is that Frank and Nancy both sound pretty bored. I know I stand in line until you think you have the time to spend an evening with me… Strings swirl and Latin guitars strum, much like they did in Petula Clark’s ‘This Is My Song’. And if we go someplace to dance I know that there’s a chance you won’t be leaving with me… It’s a wordy song, and the lines are well constructed – the alliteration in the see it in your eyes you still despise the same old lies… one is great, to give credit where it’s due. And the hook of ‘I love you’ being a stupid thing to say is cute.

But beyond that I’m left feeling a bit underwhelmed. Especially remembering how fierce Nancy sounded on ‘These Boots…’, and knowing the swagger that Frank was capable of. Both recorded far, far better songs in their careers. Perhaps they felt they had to meet in the middle, cancelling one another out. It certainly sounds like they’re holding back.

Or maybe they’re just feeling uncomfortable singing, as father and daughter, a duet clearly written for a pair of lovers… I mean, it could, maybe, be seen as song in which the father is lamenting how little time his kid spends with him… I practise every day to find some clever lines to say to make the meaning come true… That could speak of a strained inter-generational relationship, right? Of course, lines like The time is right, Your perfume fills my head… would be more difficult to sell in that way… Nancy has, apparently, gone on record to say she thinks it’s sweet that people refer to this as ‘The Incest Song.’

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By the end we have some very-sixties horns thrown into the mix, and the pair are mumbling I love you… over the fade-out. It doesn’t end with a bang. It’s not the worst disc from our half-year of easy-listening (hello, Engelbert), but it’s not the best either (hello, Petula). It’s a shame that both Nancy and Frank are bowing out of their chart-topping careers with this slice of meh.

Perhaps the big problem with this duet – and this has just come to me – is that it’s not a duet. They sing each and every line together. A duet should have a bit more give and take, call and response, you know? Nancy especially is relegated to little more than breathy backing vocalist here. Anyway, she was about to go on to make some of the best recordings of her career, with a more suitable partner: Lee Hazlewood. Here’s a link to their version of ‘Jackson’, proving that boy could she pull off a duet, under the right circumstances.

And what of her dad? A star since the late 1930s, now into his fifties. One of the legendary figures of 20th Century popular music. He isn’t very well-represented by his three UK chart-toppers, to be honest. The bland and now forgotten ‘Three Coins in the Fountain’, the much more famous, but hated by Frank himself, ‘Strangers in the Night’, and now this limp duet with his daughter. But he wasn’t done yet. In a couple of years he will record the biggest hit of his whole career, ‘My Way’, and he’ll go on scoring Top 10s through to his version of ‘New York, New York’ in 1979, aged sixty-four. If only that could have been his final chart-topper… They were still playing that as the ‘lights-up’ song in nightclubs when I was a kid!

230. ‘Release Me’, by Engelbert Humperdinck

An unassuming intro leads us, soft and gentle, into a swaying lullaby of a latest chart-topper. Please release me, Let me go, For I don’t love you, Anymore…

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Release Me, by Engelbert Humperdinck (his 1st of two #1s)

6 weeks, from 2nd March – 13th April 1967

Sigh. What has happened to the charts in recent weeks? We’ve gone from the pinnacle of the swinging sixties to the easy-listening doldrums… Jim Reeves, Tom Jones, Petula Clark (who’s fab, but still…) and now this. A new level of schmaltz.

I have found a new love dear… And I will always want her near… The one redeeming thing about this record is that it’s not a love song. It should be; but it’s really a break-up plea. Which gives it a slightly OTT, unintentionally comic feel. Especially with lines like Her lips are warm while yours are cold… (Ouch!) Such is the strength of the plea, I’m assuming he’s singing to his wife, and needs a divorce. Otherwise, why doesn’t he just dump her…? Or is he just too much of a gentleman to do a caddish thing like that?

When the backing singers come in, it really is a step too far. So let’s tune out for a moment, and focus on the most interesting thing about this record (apart from the singer’s name, but we’ll get to that in a bit.) ‘Release Me’, famously, held The Beatles’ ‘Penny Lane’ / ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ double-‘A’ off the top-spot. For a fortnight, one of the most innovative and respected pop singles ever was outsold by just one disc. Engelbert’s.

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He turns it up a notch or two for the final chorus. We move from crooning to belting. He gives the final So….. some real welly. It goes without saying that, yes, he sings it well. I feel I’ve written that quite a lot recently. And frankly, it’s not enough to save this one. It’s like saying that a footballer kicks a ball well. He’s still got to find the goal! And the slow pace and pure blandness of this record means it’s one that bobbles well wide of the post.

Unlike ‘This Is My Song’, which just sounded old, ‘Release Me’ was a (fairly) old song. First written and released in 1949, and given the treatment by Patti Page, The Everly Brothers and Dean Martin among others. It goes without saying that Humperdinck’s version is the best-known. It was, inevitably, the highest-selling single of 1967.

And what of the elephant in the room? That name. Engelbert Humperdinck was a stage name, his real one being Arnold Dorsey. But, amazingly, it is an actual name. Engelbert Humperdinck I was a German composer from the turn of the century. Humperdinck II just wholesale borrowed the name – which seems cheeky to me. He was managed by the same guy as Tom Jones, and ‘Release Me’ was his breakthrough hit. His post-sixties career is pretty interesting, but I’ll hold off on the full bio as, joy of joys, he has another huge chart-topper coming up shortly…

Follow along with this handy playlist:

229. ‘This Is My Song’, by Petula Clark

This next #1 has an intro that really sets a scene. A laundry-strung alley in old Napoli. Candles. Red-chequered tablecloth. The strings flutter. The guitar is lightly-plucked. When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza-pie…

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This Is My Song, by Petula Clark (her 2nd and final #1)

2 weeks, from 16th February – 2nd March 1967

Nope. Wrong song. This one goes: Why is my heart so light, Why are the stars so bright…? Questions, questions. I’m sure you’ve already guessed why. Why is the sky so blue, Since the hour I met you…? Petula’s in love. And so she runs through various clichés: Flowers are smiling, stars are shining… We know we’re getting a big ol’ chorus, but she builds up to it very slowly, keeping us waiting… I know why the world is smiling… It hears the same old story, Through all eternity…

Finally it comes. Love… This is my song… It’s a chorus made for movie-soundtracks. It’s outrageously cheesy, but undeniable. Don’t try to argue with it. Just let yourself get swept along by it. The world, Cannot be wrong, If in this world, There is you… It’s timeless stuff. By the solo, with its Bierfest horn section, I’m sold. I love it. Here is a song, My serenade to you…

Of the last six chart-toppers, half could be described as sentimental schmaltz. ‘Distant Drums’, ‘The Green, Green Grass of Home’, and now this. But ‘This Is My Song’ is different. I’m not sure how, but it is. Somewhere in there, buried deep in the swaying, woozy rhythm, the spirit of the sixties remains. Somehow, it manages to be quite sexy, in amongst all the cheese…

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I may be biased. Petula Clark was one of my first true loves, ever since ‘I Couldn’t Live Without Your Love’ – to which ‘This Is My Song’ was the follow-up – featured on a ‘60s Hits cassette on heavy-rotation in my parents’ car. Not that I listen to her very often now, but… This is a woman who was a child star – a ‘singing sweetheart’ and mascot to WWII troops, whose hit first records were released in the 1940s, who first charted alongside the likes of Vera Lynn and Doris Day, whose two #1s – ‘Sailor’ and this – bookend the swinging sixties, who caused scandal in the USA by (gasp!) touching Harry Belafonte on the arm, who is as comfortable singing in French, German or Italian as she is in English, and who still performs to this day, aged eighty-six! (She’s currently playing in ‘Mary Poppins’ in the West End.) She is, to apply an over-used but in this case completely appropriate term, a legend.

Meanwhile, the story of this record is almost as interesting. It is not, though it sounds it, based on an old Neapolitan folk tune. It had been written just the year before, for the soundtrack of the film ‘A Countess From Hong Kong’, by one Charlie Chaplin. Yep, that Charlie Chaplin. The film was set in the thirties, and so Chaplin wanted a song that would invoke the sound of that time. I’d say he managed it. To give it that period finish, he also wanted Al Jolson to record it. Except – small problem – Jolson had died in1950. So, he asked Petula Clark to record it instead. Clark, apparently, hated the lyrics…

Anyway, I enjoyed that. And if you didn’t enjoy this one, if you thought it was just a bit too much, too overblown and old-fashioned, just you wait till you hear what’s up next…

228. ‘I’m a Believer’, by The Monkees

We leap into 1967 grins and cheeky winks all round. Hey, hey… It’s The Monkees!

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I’m a Believer, by The Monkees (their 1st and only #1)

4 weeks, from 19th January – 16th February 1967

Wham: The organ riff intro. Bam: The guitar lick. This is a record that doesn’t hang around. I thought love was only true in fairy tales, Meant for someone else, But not for me… And then, less than thirty seconds in, we hit the chorus. It feels quick, even though it’s a regular two and a half minute song. Or maybe it feels like boxes are being ticked. Check, check, check. We got ourselves a hit record.

It’s hard to write about The Monkees – and I say that as someone who knows very little about them – without resorting to the clichés. The first manufactured boy-band. They didn’t write their own songs (This one was written by Neil Diamond, no less.) They couldn’t really play their guitars! The TV series. ‘An American rip-off of The Beatles’. All stuff that has passed into pop-culture legend. You can’t help but picture them running goofily along a beach. But, and I hope that this has become apparent as this blog has gone on, I’m no music snob. A good song is a good song, no matter who it was recorded by. And ‘I’m a Believer’ is ‘A Good Song’. It’s an ear-worm. You don’t switch stations when it comes on the radio.

The chorus especially, hits all the right spots. Then I saw her face, Now I’m a believer, Not a trace, Of doubt in my mind… Then the Mmmmhhh… And the perfect hook of rhyming ‘believer’ with ‘couldn’t leave her.’ Yes, the verses are a bit basic: ‘pain’ and ‘rain, and so on. And the topic is love. Or, not love. Lust. But not lust. It’s a song about the general concept of love, with a smudge of lust, for kids who don’t know yet what those feelings are. And it’s not a Beatles ‘rip-off’. Not quite. It’s definitely influenced by the Beat sound, especially the guitar licks between the verses. But the most Beatles thing about The Monkees were their haircuts. It’s a disc that ends on a high too, with that great Yayayayayaay!

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‘I’m a Believer’ feels like a moment. The fact that it’s the first #1 of a new year, maybe. Something’s shifting. Is this perhaps the first ‘pop song’? Hear me out… Up to now pop music has been jazz, and swing, and rock ‘n’ roll, R & B, and rock. All those sounds have been popular. But this. This is a song written with the single purpose of being popular. Of promoting a group of young men and forcing them into the hearts, and onto the bedroom walls, of girls aged between nine and, say, fourteen.

What I mean to say is that The Monkees are taking the sound of the mid-sixties: Beat pop mixed with folk and R&B, on the cusp of flower-power, and diluting it into pure pop. But, of course, that’s been happening for years. Paul Anka’s ‘Diana’ was diluted rock ‘n’ roll. Helen Shapiro’s ‘You Don’t Know’ was diluted jazz. The Four Pennies ‘Juliet’ was diluted Merseybeat. I’ve just answered my own question, then. This is not the first ‘pop song’. This isn’t anything new. It’s just a next step in The Evolution of Pop.

I’ll stop before I disappear any further into my own mind. This is a post on ‘I’m a Believer’; not a philosophical dissertation. But it is The Monkees’ one and only appearance on this countdown and so I did need to cram it all in. Anyway, a quick glance at their discography on Wikipedia shows just how much of a monster hit ‘I’m a Believer’ was: #1 across the world, from Australia, to Germany, to Canada. And, like all the best boy-bands, they burned out pretty quickly. Though not before they left us with some great pop songs: ‘Last Train to Clarksville’, ‘Daydream Believer’, ‘Pleasant Valley Sunday’… And one I had never heard of before starting this post, but which may be my new favourite-ever song title: ‘Randy Scouse Git’ (released, perhaps unsurprisingly, as ‘Alternate Title’ in the UK.)

Listen to every #1 so far in this playlist: