270. ‘Get Back’, by The Beatles with Billy Preston

For the penultimate time – shock! horror! – it’s the Fab Four. And this time they bring with them a riff that can only be described as chugging…

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Get Back, by The Beatles (their 16th of seventeen #1s) with Billy Preston 

6 weeks, from 23rd April – 4th June 1969

The Beatles, since they left the Merseybeat days behind them in 1965, have gone trippy, gone heavy, gone epic. This time they’ve gone country. The guitar licks that shimmer around the main rhythm are pure C & W, while the lyrics take us straight to the wild west. JoJo was a man who thought he was a loner, But he knew it couldn’t last, JoJo left his home in Tucson Arizona, For some California grass… (Drug references! We have drug references in #1 singles, people. What a time to have been alive!)

Alongside JoJo we find sweet Loretta Martin, who thought she was a woman, but she was another man… She, or he, or they, also needs to get back, back to where she once belonged… All the girls around her say she’s got it comin’, But she gets it while she can… Pretty risqué stuff, I’d say, even for 1969. Though perhaps I just have a dirty mind.

Having not listened to it properly in several years, ‘Get Back’ is a much weirder song than I remember. There’s those lyrics for a start, then there are the squeaking noises and Paul McCartney’s very nasal, Kermit the Frog style vocals. There are also lines where he sounds close to laughter. Theories abound as to what the hell it’s actually about, including it being a satire of anti-immigrant views. I like John Lennon’s theory, though, that the get back to where you once belonged refrain was a McCartney dig at Yoko Ono.

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Although it’s their sixteenth chart-topper, this record is a Beatles ‘first’ for a couple of reasons. Most importantly, it’s their first and only single to officially feature another musician. Technically this is ‘The Beatles with Billy Preston’, as he contributes the funky keyboard solo – for my money the song’s best bit. It was also the first, and only, Beatles’ #1 to enter the charts in top spot, rather than climb there, which means they finally match Elvis and Cliff’s achievements from the start of the decade.

And, though we may be scraping the barrel here, it’s the only Beatles’ single to feature a spoken-word section. Before the final chorus, the riff tightens and Loretta is urged, once again, to get on home. Your mummy’s waiting for you, Wearin’ her high-heeled shoes and a low-necked sweater… And that’s that. Looking at The Beatles’ post-1965 #1 singles… you can’t claim they ever rested on their laurels. Every one is different, every one a work of art in its own way (even ‘Hello, Goodbye’.)

‘Get Back’ also, significantly, puts The Beatles out clear in the UK #1 singles leaders table. They now sit on sixteen while Elvis, for so long miles out in front, has fifteen. The Shadows are on twelve. Cliff is on nine. The Stones on seven. No other act so far has more than four.

Finally, this is the 4th Beatles chart-topper in a row to have had Paul as the lead writer. Was he carrying them by this point? Or was he just writing the stuff they knew would sell? John will have the final say, though, when he gets the credit for their final #1 single, coming up very, very shortly. And it was he who had the final word when they closed their final ever live performance, from the roof of the Apple studios in January ‘69. ‘Get Back’ was the very last song they played, before the police spoiled the fun, with Lennon thanking their impromptu audience and adding: “I hope we’ve passed the audition.”

269. ‘Israelites’, by Desmond Dekker & The Aces

Every so often in this countdown – and quite frequently during the fertile late-sixties – we come across a record that sounds like a huge leap forward. This next chart-topper is one such song…

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Israelites, by Desmond Dekker & The Aces (their 1st and only #1)

1 week, from 16th – 23rd April 1969

It starts with a chant: Get up in the morning, Slaving for bread… accompanied by some doo-wop harmonising. So that every mouth can be fed… Pretty bleak stuff. Oh-poor, me Israelites… Then in comes a jaunty, bouncy riff. There’s a big contrast here between the lyrics and the tune, but it works.

I have to admit – channelling my dear departed Gran here – that I have no idea what Desmond Dekker is singing for most of this disc. His Jamaican accent is uncompromising. You can picture fathers up and down the land frowning at Top of the Pops. ‘What is this nonsense? It seems that his wife and kids have left him, he has no money, and he may have to turn to a life of crime: I don’t want to end up like Bonnie and Clyde…

The title refers to Rastafarianism, which has its roots in Israel. (I never thought that I’d be getting into theology, but here goes…) Rastafarians were 2nd class citizens in a predominantly Christian Jamaica, and often had to struggle to make ends meet. But, like all the best songs-with-a-message, ‘Israelites’ doesn’t forget to be catchy. It works as well on a basic level, one that you can shake your body to, as it does as a social commentary.

We’ve had a couple of reggae false-starts over the past year. The Equals were reggae-tinted rock. Marmalade aped The Beatles aping reggae – the ‘Desmond with a barrow in the market place’ from ‘Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da’ was based on Desmond Dekker – but it is now official. Reggae has arrived at the top of the British charts. I have to admit that it’s a genre I struggle to enjoy – even more so when it comes to ska and two-tone – but I love this record. It’s raw, it’s cool and authentic.

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Coming as it does after Marvin Gaye, ‘Israelites’ also marks the first time we’ve had consecutive chart-toppers by black artists (I’m deliberately not counting the time in 1959 when The Platters replaced Shirley Bassey). While we’ve had plenty of black artists hit the top-spot, ‘Israelites’ feels different. It was written, produced and performed by black Jamaicans. It doesn’t sound like it’s had its edges softened to sell more. It is – I’ve used this word already but it fits very well here – uncompromising in its sound.

Desmond Dekker and The Aces enjoyed a few more chart hits in the UK. ‘You Can Get It If You Really Want’ – a much more accessible record than ‘Israelites’ – made #2 the following year. He was also one of the first people to spot and promote a young Jamaican by the name of Bob Marley. He passed away in London, in 2006.

Just as interesting – if less important in the grand scheme of things – is the fact that this record marks eleven chart-toppers in a row that have been their artists one and only #1. (Do you get what I mean? I couldn’t think of a better way to phrase that sentence.) From Mary Hopkin through to The Aces, we’ve had half a year of artists enjoying their one and only moment at the top. Which I think must be – or be close to being – a record. Bringing that run to an emphatic end, however, are The Beatles, an act that have enjoyed a few more number one singles than most…

268. ‘I Heard It Through the Grapevine’, by Marvin Gaye

Attention. Attention. We have a stone-cold classic coming right up. Marvin Gaye is here, and he has been hearing things, through the grapevine…

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I Heard It Through the Grapevine, by Marvin Gaye (his 1st and only #1)

3 weeks, from 26th March – 16th April 1969

Has there been a cooler intro so far? A sexy, slinkingly slow build up, with a tickle of cymbal and a subtle riff: doo-do-do-doo… It’s dripping with attitude. And then Gaye’s voice, a husky falsetto. Ooh, I bet you’re wond’rin how I knew, Bout your plans to make me blue…

The singer has heard second-hand that his girlfriend is about to do the dirty on him. I heard it through the grapevine, Not much longer would you be mine… the backing singers chant, like the gossiping whisperers that have brought the news to him. The premise of the song is kind of flawed – surely the gossip would be that she is cheating on him, not that she’s just planning to – but shhh! Who cares? We’re in Greatest Pop Songs of all time territory here.

What I especially like about this song is that we are unsure how the singer really feels about the situation. Is he sad? (I know a man ain’t supposed to cry, But these tears I can’t keep inside…) Or angry? (It took me by surprise, I must say…) Or just disappointed? (You could have told me yourself, That you love someone else…) Or is he all of these things?

‘I Heard It Through the Grapevine’ is a Motown record, only the 3rd to hit the top of the UK charts, after ‘Baby Love’ and ‘Reach Out I’ll Be There’, and the last one of the 1960s, the decade synonymous with the label’s sound. But, at the same time, it’s a lot subtler than earlier Motown hits – far less bubble-gum. There’s an edge to it. It’s instant, but it’s also layered. I know I write this fairly often, about other huge hits, but it still rings true… This would have been a hit at any time. It transcends time and place.

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Or if you want to distil it down to a simple, one-word description: it’s cool. You want to know what cool sounds like? You put ‘I Heard it Through the Grapevine’ on. Marvin Gaye had been a recording artist since the start of the sixties, and a big star in the US for years before this became his biggest hit. In the UK, though, he hadn’t been higher than #16. Following this, he would become a routine visitor to the Top 10, throughout the seventies and early eighties, solo or with either of his favoured duetting partners, Diana Ross and Tammi Terrell. It all culminated in his huge ‘Sexual Healing’ comeback in 1982…

Until he was shot, dead, a year later. By his dad. We’ve met some pretty tragic characters in our journey through the charts so far, but this is up there with the worst of them. His father was a disciplinarian, a Christian minister, and yet a cross-dresser, with a very complicated relationship with his artistic, world famous, and possibly gay, son. Marvin stepped in to break up a confrontation between his parents, and was killed by a shot from the gun he had given his father a few months earlier.

Tragic stuff. And also tragic in its own way is the fact that this is Gaye’s one and only chart-topping single. No ‘It Takes Two’, or ‘What’s Goin’ On’, or the aforementioned ‘Sexual Healing’… Just this. But what a chart-topper it is. If you’re only going to do it once, then do it in style. Meanwhile, ‘Marvin Gaye’ will hit #1 many years from now, as the title of a song. Which I just realised answers a question I posed in my post on ‘Lady Madonna’, about #1s which reference chart-topping artists in their titles… Till then, then…

267. ‘Where Do You Go To (My Lovely)’, by Peter Sarstedt

I complained about our last #1 – Amen Corner’s ‘(If Paradise Is) Half As Nice’ – having nothing for the listener to get their teeth into. It just floated along, pleasantly enough… This next #1 though, has enough meat in it for several courses.

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Where Do You Go To (My Lovely), by Peter Sarstedt (his 1st and only #1)

4 weeks, from 26th February – 26th March 1969

It’s a ballad, in the very traditional sense. An epic song – nearly five minutes in length – that tells a story. I love a song that tells a story. A story that’s introduced by some accordions, as you picture the singer strolling alongside the Seine in winter, hands thrust deep in his pockets, a cigarette dangling from the side of his mouth. Mais oui.

He’s rueful, thinking about a girl, as Frenchmen are wont to do. Where do you go to, My lovely, When you’re alone in your bed… Tell me the thoughts that surround you, I want to look inside your head… (Yes I do…) I love those little run-ons at the end of each verse. They add to the idea that this song is being made up on the spot, that it exists only in the singer’s head, as he walks the river banks.

He paints quite the picture of this girl. Beautiful, glamorous, diamonds and pearls in her hair, famous friends and a fancy apartment off the Boulevard St. Michel… She went to the Sorbonne, of course, and talks like Marlene Dietrich. She has Picassos, and a racehorse from the Aga Khan, and sips only the finest brandy… I’m paraphrasing, obviously. All this unfolds over several verses, accompanied only by an acoustic guitar. This song really is all about the lyrics, and the voice that delivers them: full of regret but still defiant.

It’s funny too. The verse about her carefully designed topless swimsuit, for example that gives her: an even suntan, On your back, And on your legs… And then suddenly it’s menacing, when he mocks her fake laugh: a-ha-ha-ha! There’s anger too: They don’t realise where you came from, And I wonder if they really care, Or give a damn… (Note the mild swear word! The worst one so far? Two hundred and sixty seven chart-toppers in.)

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Who is she, then? Who is this deceptive femme fatale? Don’t keep us in suspense any longer, Peter! We know we’re getting to the denouement when the violins come in. Turns out, the singer knew the girl as a child in Naples, when they were both begging in rags. Her name’s Marie-Clair… So look into my face, Marie-Clair, And remember just who you are, Then go and forget me forever, But I know you still bear the scar, Deep inside… (Yes, I do…) As with all the best stories, it leaves things open to interpretation. Were they childhood friends? Young lovers? Brother and sister? Did she betray him to escape their life of poverty…?

The final line, I think, gives it away. I know the thoughts that surround you, ‘Cause I can look inside your head… They are twins! And she did do something terrible to him! Maybe… The same accordions from the intro play us out, as we contemplate this bombshell. Apparently, the title character might have been inspired by the fashion magazine ‘Marie Claire’, or by the actress Sophia Lauren (who was from Naples), or by Sarstedt’s girlfriend… ‘Where Do You Go To (My Lovely)’ both won an Ivor Novello award, and was one of John Peel’s least favourite songs. I can see why you might either love or hate this record. It’s smug, and pretentious, and wordy. Myself, I’m leaning more to the ‘love’ side.

Peter Sarstedt was, disappointingly, not French. He just wrote a very French-sounding chart topper. Don’t worry, though – there will be a genuine French #1 before the year’s out. He was British, though born and raised in India, and was the younger brother of Eden Kane, whom we met back in 1961, when he hit top spot with ‘Well I Ask You’. Which, I think, makes them the first siblings to hit #1, following on from father and daughter Frank and Nancy. The follow-up to ‘Where Do You Go…’ made #10, and that that was that for Sarstedt’s chart career. Knowing he was on to a good thing, he wrote two further instalments of the Marie-Clair story – ‘The Last of the Breed’ and ‘Farewell Marie-Clair’ before he died in 2017.

266. ‘(If Paradise Is) Half As Nice’, by Amen Corner

A nice song, to keep 1969 ticking along, nicely. If paradise were half as nice as this song, then paradise would be a perfectly pleasant place to be…

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(If Paradise Is) Half As Nice, by Amen Corner (their 1st and only #1)

2 weeks, from 12th – 26th February 1969

Tell the truth, I’m finding it hard to get very excited about this record. I like it, it’s fine, it’s nice… I suppose life would be fairly exhausting if you got excited about every song you heard. Sometimes it’s OK just to think something’s… OK. If paradise is half as nice as, Heaven that you take me to, Who needs paradise, I’d rather have you… It’s cute – a song about being the simple act of falling head over heels in love.

I’ve heard this song before, of course – it’s a bit of a ‘Sixties Best Of’ staple (the copyrights must be cheap?) and a mish-mash of the usual late sixties sounds. There are horns, it’s a bit trippy, and the lead singer has a very soulful voice. That’s my favourite thing about this song, Andy Fairweather Low’s husky voice, and his oh-woah-woah-woahs and oh yes I’d rather have yous in the chorus.

It’s a chilled-out #1, one that floats along and then out on a fluffy cloud. And, if in doubt, always stick in a la-la-la refrain – nobody minds a gentle dose of lalalas. Like a surprising number of previous chart-toppers have been, ‘(If Paradise Is) Half As Nice’ was originally written and recorded in Italian. Not that it sounds particularly Italian compared to, say, Elvis’s pair of operatic hits ‘It’s Now or Never’ and ‘Surrender’, but still.

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Amen Corner were a Welsh band, named after a soul club-night in a Cardiff ballroom. ‘If Paradise…’ was their 3rd of four Top 10 hits before they split up at the very end of the decade. (That’s something worth noting – how many of the 1960s’ chart-topping acts didn’t make it into the seventies.) Amen Corner recorded the definitive version – in the UK at least – of ‘Bend Me, Shape Me’, which surprises me, as it has a very different vibe to their sole #1.

Amen Corner, then. A short post for a perfectly acceptable song. I like it, but can’t help feeling that it doesn’t give the listener much to get their teeth into. A background number one – helping us float that bit further along on our journey through the years…

Follow every #1 so far here:

265. ‘Blackberry Way’, by The Move

This next #1 single is one that opens with a bang, right in the middle of the story. ‘In media res’, if you want to be fancy about it. Blackberry way, Absolutely pouring down with rain, It’s a terrible day…

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Blackberry Way, by The Move (their 1st and only #1)

1 week, from 5th – 12th February 1969

I like the absolutely pouring down with rain line – it sounds very British. As the picture is filled in, you really can picture a dull suburban street – probably lined with bungalows – in the rain, as girl ends it with boy. So now I’m standing on the corner, Lost in the things that I said…

It’s a dramatic record. Make that melodramatic. The strings moan like the soundtrack to a haunted house. The drums are thick and portentous. As the singer makes his way from Blackberry Way, through the park and past the boating lake, where the boats float: just like myself they are neglected… Before each chorus, he asks himself: What am I supposed to do now? He gets on the train, with one final look over his shoulder, to see if she’s followed him… We can assume that she hasn’t.

This is kind of fun; if a little OTT. Even though it’s about heartbreak ,the scale of the song, and the lyrics about the mundane things he sees on his walk in the rain, keep it slightly tongue-in-cheek. Only occasionally does it get ahead of itself – what exactly does the line: See the battlefields of careless sins, Cast the to the wind… mean? I like the fact that it’s quite a psychedelic sounding song, but one describing a fairly everyday scene. No flower-power here. And I like the contradiction in the chorus: Goodbye Blackberry Way, I can’t see you, I don’t need you… Sure to want me back another day… Ain’t that just how a break-up goes…?

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The Move were a Birmingham band, that had already enjoyed four Top 5 hits before they scored their sole chart-topper. I always liked ‘Fire Brigade’ as a kid – it must have been on a sixties-hits tape we had lying around – and ‘Flowers in the Rain’ was famously the first ever song played on Radio 1. They were quite a sonically experimental band, mixing Spector-ish production with innovative sounds and effects. You can hear the instruments on ‘Blackberry Way’, straining to make themselves the most important part of the song over the vocals. It’s a record that bursts from the speakers…

Central to The Move was songwriter and singer Roy Wood, who we will meet again in the coming decade – a man who played a big role in shaping the sound of the seventies when The Move morphed into Electric Light Orchestra. Wood didn’t hang around long with ELO, though, leaving to form glam-rockers Wizzard. Luckily for all of us, we’ll meet both of his bands-to-be later in this countdown. Not many artists can claim to have been involved in three hugely successful, chart-topping acts… Kudos to Wood!

264. ‘Albatross’, by Fleetwood Mac

One question springs immediately to mind upon listening to our next #1: This is Fleetwood Mac? The Fleetwood Mac? The ‘Don’t Stop’, ‘Go Your Own Way’, ‘Little Lies’… Fleetwood Mac? Well yes, yes, and yes.

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Albatross, by Fleetwood Mac (their 1st and only #1)

1 week, from 29th January – 5th February 1969

And that’s not the only strange thing about this record. In fact, pretty much everything about this record is strange. It is one of the least ‘number one’ sounding number one records ever. It’s a musical interlude, the background soundtrack to an advert for roast lamb, the music played in a wellness spa… It’s ‘Chillout – Vol I’, three decades early.

That’s not to say it’s bad. I like it. It’s not the sort of thing I usually like; but I do. It’s a song called ‘Albatross’, which sounds exactly like an albatross soaring over the ocean. The insistent, see-saw bass is the bird’s wings, the guitar its call, and the cymbals the waves crashing below… As an instrumental it works. It doesn’t need lyrics. Lyrics might, and I’m going to contradict everything I’ve ever written about instrumental records here… Lyrics might have ruined it.

Placing this in context, in the late sixties, it is definitely the sort of record that you’d slip on before lighting up your bong and settling down to stare at a magic-eye picture. So, in some ways it’s a random January chart-topper; in other ways it makes complete sense for it to have hit #1 when it did.

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What makes less sense is that this record will be Fleetwood Mac’s sole UK #1 single. One of the biggest bands of the seventies and eighties scored their one week at the top in 1969. In truth, they enjoyed far more singles chart success in the States than in their homeland. 1969 was actually their best year in the UK – one number one and a couple of number twos. Their huge hits from ‘Rumours’: ‘Dreams’, ‘Don’t Stop’ and ‘Go Your Own Way’ were huge hits only in America. Over the Atlantic none of them broke the Top 20.

Having said that, this Fleetwood Mac are a very different Fleetwood Mac to the one that everyone thinks of. Christine McVie would join in the early seventies, Stevie Nicks and Lindsay Buckingham in the middle of that decade. Only Mick Fleetwood and John McVie were around for ‘Albatross’, when they were a much blues-ier band.

In my mind, Fleetwood Mac will be forever linked with The Moody Blues, for the simple reason that my parents would play them – a lot – during long car journeys, and my heart would always sink when the tape came out. The Beatles, The Stones, The Eagles or ABBA? No problem. Simon and Garfunkel? Tolerable. The Moody Blues or Fleetwood Mac? Time to get my Walkman out. I’ve grown to like the Mac in old age more than I have The Moody Blues. But still, when I hear the synth intro to ‘Little Lies’ I instinctively shudder. Perhaps if the ‘Greatest Hits’ my parents owned had included their sixties hits, and their one and only chart-topper, I might have been won over much earlier…

263. ‘Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da’, by The Marmalade

Our first #1 of 1969, which hit the top just as the New Year’s bells rang out. Throughout January it was locked in a bit of a jig with our last chart-topper, ‘Lily the Pink’. Both records replaced one another at the summit. And when you listen to this disc, that makes sense…

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Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da, by The Marmalade (their 1st and only #1)

1 week, from 1st – 8th January / 2 weeks, from 15th – 29th January 1969 (3 weeks total)

For ‘Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da’ is cut from the same silly, music-hall cloth as Lily and her medicinal compounds. This is another strange tale – the tale of Desmond, Molly and their market stall. Desmond says to Molly girl I like your face, And Molly says this as she takes him by the hand…

You probably know what comes next, because this is a song by a very famous band, from a very famous album. Ob-la-di, Ob-la-da, Life goes on, Wo-oah… La-la how the life goes on… Yep, it’s the fifth cover of a Beatles’ song to make #1 in the UK, following on from ‘Bad to Me’, ‘A World Without Love’, ‘Michelle’, and hitting the top only a couple of months after the last one, ‘With a Little Help From My Friends’. Add these to the Beatles’ fifteen #1s, and that’s a cool twenty chart-toppers for Misters Lennon and McCartney. (Listen to the original here – John apparently hated it.)

Out of the previous covers, I’d say that this has most in common with The Overlanders’ ‘Michelle’. It’s a perfectly functional copy of the original, one that adds nothing new into the mix. It still bounces along on the same ska-ish beat, Desmond still buys Molly a diamond ring, Molly still does her pretty face and sings with her band in the evening – they still have the drag verse at the end – but it’s basically karaoke.

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In fact, the bits I like about the original ‘Ob-La-Di…’ are the cut from this. They don’t shout ‘Bra!’ in the chorus, instead changing it to ‘woah’. There’s no ‘ha ha ha ha’ between the bridge and the third verse, no plinky-plonky piano. Plus, at the end they change So if you want some fun… to So if you want some jam… Because, I’m guessing, they were called The Marmalade. So actually, they’ve taken an average song, and made it worse. Oh well.

And it’s sung in a very strange, slightly Indian, slightly Scouse, slightly Fagin from ‘Oliver!’ accent. The Marmalade were from Glasgow, but that ain’t no Glaswegian… It’s tough, I know, to assess a song like this on its own merits, having been familiar with The Beatles’ version since I was about eight. It’s fine, but coming so soon after Cocker’s outrageous interpretation of ‘With a Little Help…’ it falls pretty flat. The Marmalade would, to be fair, have several other, self-written Top 10 hits through to the early seventies. They were no one-hit wonders.

P.S. Before we finish, it’s worth noting the reggae-ish undertones in this disc. Last year we had the first ska-tinted number one from The Equals, while the ‘Desmond’ in this song was apparently inspired by Desmond Dekker, one of the first reggae stars to make it big in the UK. The ‘Bra!’ in the original was apparently meant to be more like ‘Brah!’ – ‘brother’ or ‘friend’ in West Indian patois. Nowadays Paul McCartney would probably get savaged for such cultural appropriation… What it all means is that reggae has arrived at the top of the charts, just in time to add yet another layer to an amazingly diverse musical decade.

P.P.S. This is the 19th disc to have two (or more) separate runs at the top since the charts began sixteen years ago. Amazingly, it will be the last disc to have a return to number one (without being re-released) until 1993!