371. ‘Whispering Grass’, by Windsor Davies & Don Estelle

Well, what have we here then… On first glance, I thought it sounds quite poetic: ‘Whispering Grass’. Something Wordsworth might have written about on one of his Lakeland walks…

Whispering Grass, by Windsor Davies & Don Estelle (their 1st and only #1)

3 weeks, from 1st – 22nd June 1975

I’m going to have to split this review into two parts. Part I is what I make of the song, Part II will be what the hell this record actually is. Here goes. It’s quite nice – a lilting piano and some nice harmonies – and very old-fashioned. This must be a cover of an oldie, from the twenties or thirties.

The two vocalists, I am unsure which one is Davies and which is Estelle, are contrasting. One has a deep, Welsh baritone, and does a spoken intro and outro, and some backing bum-bum-bums. The other does most of the actual singing: Why do you whisper, Green grass…? Whispering grass, The trees don’t have to know….

So it’s a bit of a pun: grass as in the green stuff growing from the ground, and grass as in a tell-tale. It’s cute. Don’t you tell it to the trees, Or she will tell it to the birds and bees… the Welshman intones. It’s a novelty, that much is clear, but it’s not an offensively annoying one. This is quite a listenable record. But… I give up. Time for Part II. Help me, Google…

OK, so I half-knew that this was a spin-off single from a popular sitcom, ‘It Ain’t Half Hot, Mum’, set among an army theatre troop in British India in the Second World War. Windsor Davies and Don Estelle are performing it in character: Davies as Sgt Major Williams and Estelle as Gunner ‘Lofty’ Sugden. It was quite the popular show, running for eight series until 1981.

But, as pleasant as this record is, I can’t help feeling a bit left out. It’s clearly some kind of in-joke that you would have got had you been alive in 1975, and a fan of the programme. At this far of a remove it’s little more than a shrug and move along moment. I have never seen ‘It Ain’t Half Hot, Mum’, as it doesn’t get repeated very often. (A ‘70s sitcom, set in the colonies, with white actors playing Indians, featuring lots of men in theatre drag… You can imagine it being deemed ‘problematic’ nowadays. Having never seen it, I will defer judgement.)

‘Whispering Grass’ was indeed a hit from the ‘40s – 1940 to be precise – for The Ink Spots. What’s clear from this and the previous #1 – ‘Stand By Your Man’ – is that the grown-ups had momentarily wrested control of the top spot from the young ‘uns. You can imagine this record being bought by mums and dads, grannies and grandads, in their droves. While the kids, and the bloggers writing about the song forty-five years later, look slightly bemused, and then move on.

370. ‘Stand by Your Man’, by Tammy Wynette

Sometimes it’s hard, To be… A woman… Let me ask you: Is there a better opening line out there?

Stand by Your Man, by Tammy Wynette (her 1st and only #1)

3 weeks, from 11th May – 1st June 1975

Then there’s the twang and the tremble in Tammy Wynette’s voice as she gives her piece of marital advice… Giving all your love, To just, One man… ‘World-weary’ doesn’t even begin to describe it. This is some proper, old-school, Nashville Country & Western, where life is tough and men just don’t appreciate you.

You’ll have bad times, And he’ll have good times… Oh Tammy, honey… Doing things that you don’t understand… Her husband stays out late, wasting his time in gambling and carousing and other manly pursuits, while Tammy pines at home. I love the clanging, reverbing guitars as the chorus clicks into gear: Stand by your man! Give him two arms to cling to… And somethin’ warm to come to… When nights are cold and lonely…

It’s a ridiculous sentiment, really, especially to 2021 ears. ‘Stand by Your Man’ would have sounded old-fashioned in 1975, or even in 1968 when it was recorded (feminist movements of the time certainly thought so.) If you love him, You’ll forgive him… No, Tammy! If your good-for-nothing husband’s staying out all night, drinking and fornicating, you change the locks and come at him with a rolling-pin! And if that doesn’t work, you divorce him. (Of course, Wynette’s other signature hit is ‘D-I-V-O-R-C-E’, although in that song she is the one being divorced…)

But then, if you think about it, to most women in the sixties, who lived in the conservative parts of America where country music is the defining sound, divorce wouldn’t have been an option. It would have meant disgrace, scorn and opprobrium. So this record would have resonated with many a put-upon wife, left with little option other than standing by her man. Wynette always argued that stand by your man wasn’t the most important line in the song. She pointed people’s attention to: ‘cause after all, he’s just a man… (Ouch!)

Why was this record hitting #1 now, in the spring of 1975? It had featured in a Jack Nicholson film a few years before, but I can’t find any other reason. Then again, I could ask that question about every C&W hit. They come along, every so often, standing out like a sore thumb. Kind of like reggae, it’s a genre that pops up every now and again, without changing very much, and the strings and echoey backing guitars are the same ones we heard in the fifties, on monster country hits like ‘Rose Marie’.

Tammy Wynette was one of the genre’s biggest stars – the ‘First Lady of Country’, no less – with seventeen #1s on the Billboard Country charts. This, being one of only three chart appearances here, doesn’t tell her full story at all. (Though a parody of one of her other hits will be featuring in this countdown very soon…) She died in 1998, but not before making one of the greatest music comebacks of all time, with the KLF, and the ancients of Mu Mu on ‘Justified and Ancient’ in the early ‘90s… Tammy, stand by the JAM…

369. ‘Oh Boy’, by Mud

I gave Mud’s previous #1, the mopey ‘Lonely This Christmas’ a pretty negative write-up, and I’m afraid this ain’t going to be much more positive…

Oh Boy, by Mud (their 3rd and final #1)

2 weeks, from 27th April – 11th May 1975

Rule number one for writing a post on a cover version: don’t just compare it to the original. (‘Oh Boy’, of course, was a huge 1958 hit for The Crickets, the follow-up to ‘That’ll Be the Day’, one of Buddy Holly’s blueprints in building the foundations of rock ‘n’ roll.) It is a fine rule, most of the time.

But when the original is so seminal, so brilliant… Well, it’s impossible. Especially given how Mud suck all the life out of what was a scorching rock song, and reduce it to a funereal plod. You wait for the tempo to raise, for the band to reveal that they’ve been stringing us along and to crack into life, but nope… It just keeps lumbering along, like a buffalo stuck in a swamp.

I do like the hard rock guitars, I suppose, that give this record a bit of a pulse, and there is a new spoken word bit in the middle, by a very seductive sounding lady. All my life, I’ve been waiting, Tonight there’ll be no hesitation… The way she moans her Oh Boys is very Serge and Jane. On the whole, though, I’m left asking ‘why?’ I’m all for trying something different, putting a new spin on an old song. And who knows, maybe if Mud had gone for a straight cover version I’d have called the attempt sacrilege? It’s just… very lifeless.

By the end, the tempo has slowed even further. It is now a certified funeral chant, the instruments having faded and the band going it alone and a capella. I’ve been saying it for a while now, but glam rock is dying a slow death. Time to stub the cigarette out and be done with it. The frustrating thing is… Mud had way better songs than this that didn’t get to number one. ‘The Cat Crept In’, ‘Dyna-mite’… They even did much better covers than what they’ve attempted here: their take on ‘In the Mood’ is silly fun, while their version of Elvis’s ‘One Night’ is what ‘Lonely This Christmas’ should have sounded like.

A frustrating band, then, Mud. Not in the top league of glam, but a solid promotion contender. If you want to know hear more from their back-catalogue, I’d skip ‘Oh Boy’ and crack on with the songs I listed above. And of course their one, true classic: ‘Tiger Feet’. We can forgive everything when we remember ‘Tiger Feet’… Hilariously, on Spotify, Mud’s back-catalogue has been combined with that of Müd (note the umlaut), a hardcore trance act with songs like ‘Fuck It’s Hot’. At least, I assume they’re not the same band… Who knows what directions they went in when the hits dried up…

Follow along with every number one so far…

368. ‘Bye Bye Baby’, by The Bay City Rollers

Our last number one, Telly Savalas’s ‘If’, caused us to wonder if a song can be simultaneously very good and yet very, very bad. Our next number one raises similar queries…

Bye Bye Baby, by The Bay City Rollers (their 1st of two #1s)

6 weeks, from 16th March – 27th April 1975

Let’s start with the positives. I like the nod towards ‘Do You Love Me?’– #1 twelve whole years ago! – in the spoken word intro. I love the disco-ish beat that drives the whole thing along. I like the fried guitar solo that comes out of nowhere. ‘Bye Bye Baby’ pushes all the bubblegum buttons that I am powerless to resist, and culminates in an earworm of a chorus: She’s got me but I’m not free so… Bye bye baby, Baby goodbye… Bye bye baby, Don’t make me cry…

On to the negatives. It’s a song that doesn’t know what on earth it wants to be. It chucks all sorts of classic pop references – Motown, a glam drumbeat, disco rhythms, Beach Boys’ harmonising – and hopes that they stick. That guitar solo that I quite like sounds like it should belong to another song entirely. To be fair, and this is something I had no idea about before writing this post, ‘Bye Bye Baby’ is a cover of a Four Season’s hit from 1965, which explains the Motown references. But I can’t say they’ve improved upon the original…

Then there’s the fact that I’m Scottish, and that The Bay City Rollers come laden with cultural baggage. I’d bet most Scots my age couldn’t name a Bay City Rollers song, save for this one, or maybe ‘Shang-a-Lang’, and yet they’d know exactly who they were. They’d know the tartan, and the goofy grins, and the screaming hordes of teenage girls last seen at the height of Beatlemania. They’ve also become by-word for manufactured pop, which is unfair, as they were self-formed and had been a going concern since the mid-sixties.

They were, though, groomed and prepped for success by a Svengali figure, Tam Paton. They went through various line-up and name changes (the past members section of their Wiki page lists over twenty people). Their name comes from them throwing a dart at a map of the USA and it landing on Bay City, Michigan. And they perform this song with semi-convincing American accents. It’s a fine tradition, British acts pretending to be American, which we last heard with Mud and we will continue to hear in acts like Busted and McFly many years from now.

Look at pictures of the band and it seems amazing that they were so huge, on both sides of the Atlantic. They just look very… ordinary. They’re cute; but not globe-humping, colossally successful boyband ‘cute’. Maybe 1 Direction would have looked like that if it weren’t for modern dentistry and Photoshop…? Who knows. Anyway, the Rollers have a second number one coming up pronto, so let’s save any discussion of their legacy, and their disintegration, until then. For now just enjoy, if you can, their most famous moment, and the biggest selling single of 1975… (Seriously – six weeks is the longest a song has spent at #1 for four years!)

367. ‘If’, by Telly Savalas

I’ve been looking forward to writing this post for days. Last time out I wrapped up my post on Steve Harley, and had a quick listen to what was coming next. A song I had never heard before: ‘If’. I started taking notes… And, my word. This is why I started this blog, to discover chat-topping moments such as this. This is amazing.

If, by Telly Savalas (his 1st and only #1)

2 weeks, from 2nd – 16th March 1975

Or wait. Is it actually not amazing? Is it actually awful? This record somehow manages to straddle the gaping chasm between ‘amazing’ and ‘awful’ with perfect poise. It is pure car crash music. We listen, we wonder, our eyebrows keep rising, but we don’t press ‘stop.’

The first note I made was that there is ‘a spoken word intro’. Which keeps going, on and on, deeper and deeper into the song. Telly Savalas talks. Or, rather, he purrs and caresses his way through the record. If a picture, Paints a thousand words, Then why can’t I paint you…? My second note reads: ‘Is he ever going to sing…?’ The answer to which is ‘no’. If a face could launch a thousand ships, Then where am I to go…?

There have been ‘spoken word’ number ones. Think Baz Luhrmann, The Streets… But I thought we’d be waiting a while yet for our first one. Here it is, though. Curling suggestively from the lips of James Bond’s arch-nemesis. When life is running dry.. You come and pour yourself… On me… he growls, and I almost spit out my coffee.

What am I listening to? Seriously? This defies serious analysis. Couple it with the videos I’ve attached below, in one of which Telly lights a cigarette before reciting his hit single, all the while being watched by a ginormous floating Barbie doll head. And… Is he wearing a glittering, gold undershirt?

How and why did this come about? Was it simply a cash-in on Savalas’s fame as TV detective Kojak? Was it for a bet? A joke? Or was it because Telly was one cool sonofabitch who people didn’t dare say ‘no’ to? I’d go with that. I think people bought this record simply because they were worried he’d come round their house and rough them up.

So ridiculous is this song, it takes me several listens before I can focus enough on the lyrics, and notice that the apocalypse has come. If the world should stop revolving, Spinning, Spinning slowly down to die… I’d spend the end with you… ‘If’ was originally recorded by Bread – making this the second Bread cover to top the charts in the space of a few months – and while I’m loathe to describe Savalas’s version as ‘better’, it is certainly more memorable.

This is not on Spotify (Come on Spotify!) But that means you have a chance to enjoy the many spectacular performances Telly Savalas made of his sole chart-topper, on YouTube. I’ve attached a couple below. (I don’t normally do this, but these videos are genuinely too good to miss.) Once one finished, YouTube auto-played Lee Marvin’s ‘Wand’rin’ Star’ – I had clearly triggered some gravel-voiced, middle-aged actor-slash-singer from the 1970s algorithm.

A couple of other things worth mentioning: Telly Savalas was fifty-three when this made #1, meaning he shoves the likes of Marvin, Frank Sinatra and Charles Aznavour aside to become the second oldest chart-topper, behind Louis Armstrong. And ‘If’ remains to this day the shortest-titled chart-topping single ever. Whatever it lacks in length, though, it more than makes up for in pure, animal magnetism. Telly Savalas, ladies and gentlemen. Enjoy…

366. ‘Make Me Smile (Come Up and See Me)’, by Steve Harley & Cockney Rebel

Cool intro alert! I do like to keep track of our intros, and the ascending bass riff on this one launches it straight into the… let’s see… the Top 5 of the ‘cool intros to chart-topping singles’ list.

Make Me Smile (Come Up and See Me), by Steve Harley & Cockney Rebel (their 1st and only #1)

2 weeks, from 16th February – 2nd March 1975

I’ve known this song for years, and the one thing that stands out in my mind, even though I haven’t listened to it in a while, is Steve Harley’s voice. The sneer he puts into words like smiiiillle, and tryyyyyy, as well as his strong accent, seems very punk to my ears. It’s proto-Paul Weller, or Billy Bragg.

You’ve done it all, You’ve broken every code, Pulled the rebel to the floor… And well might he sneer. The lyrics at first sound cryptic, but when you learn that Harley wrote them as a sarcastic comeback to the band he had just split from they become crystal. You spoiled the game, No matter what you say, For only metal, What a bore… The delivery on the ‘metal’ line is genuinely one of the best vocal moments in any #1 single we’ve met, and I’ve always loved the cocky pauses between the chorus and the verses.

Come up and see me, Make me smile… Or do what you want, Running wild… As Harley tells it, the other members of Cockney Rebel left him in the lurch. So he reformed the band, with his name front and centre, and scored a huge chart-topping single. Not a bad bit of revenge. But, it doesn’t sound like a nasty song. On the whole, it’s breezy and uplifting, although apparently earlier demos were slower, and darker.

‘Make Me Smile’ is a hard record to place. It’s eclectic – aside from the acoustic chords and the bass, there’s also a gospel choir for the backing vocals, and a Spanish guitar for the solo. Wiki lists Cockney Rebel as ‘glam’ but, while they certainly looked glam – lots of flamboyant silk suits on display in promo pics – their sound is a little more experimental. They had hit the Top 10 twice in 1974, with ‘Judy Teen’ and ‘Mr Soft’, before the split, but it’s clear why this record went all the way to the top. It’s incredibly catchy and much more commercial. Simple!

It was also a ‘long car journeys as a child’ staple for me (I wonder how many songs that is now?) I can’t say it was always my favourite – I definitely would have skipped it for ABBA or Wizzard, had I been sitting in the front – but I can appreciate it now for what it is. It’s a grown up song, after all, and one that’s ingrained itself in British culture. Apparently there have been 120 cover versions, from acts including Duran Duran, Erasure and Suzi Quatro, which isn’t bad for a record born out of frustration and anger. The power, as one D. Vader might put it, of the dark side

365. ‘January’, by Pilot

(Isn’t this the perfect song for my first post of January 2021?) Back in 1975, making it to the top just in time, with five days to spare: ‘January’, by Pilot. (And don’t think I didn’t notice the perfect coincidence of our first month-themed #1 also being chart-topper #365.)

January, by Pilot (their 1st and only #1)

3 weeks, from 26th January – 16th February 1975

For the first time in what feels like an age, we have some glam rock in the top spot. I make this the first glam #1 since Gary Glitter’s ‘Always Yours’ in June last year. (Was David Essex’s ‘Gonna Make You a Star’ glam…? A question for the ages, but I’m going to err on the ‘no’ side.) Not that ‘January’ is all that glam. We’re not suddenly back in mid-1972, alas. But there are handclaps, for a start. And some flamboyant guitar flourishes.

It also qualifies as glam, for me, because of its nonsensical lyrics. January, Sick and tired you’ve been hanging on me… (Respect to Pilot here, for having the audacity to rhyme ‘January’ with ‘hanging on me’) You make me sad with your eyes, You’re telling me lies… Anyone who’s lived through a British January – and Pilot were Scottish, which means they’d have known some truly miserable Januarys – can sympathise.

 I think the singer just wants the summer to hurry up and arrive: Sun, Like a fire, Carry on, Don’t be gone… But then there are ways he humanises this calendar month – January, Don’t be cold, Don’t be angry with me… – that make me think ‘January’ might be a lover. Then there are lines like: You’ll be facin’ the world…! You’ll be chasin’ the world… that don’t fit either narrative.

What we have here, probably, is nothing more than a catchy pop song with some lyrics arranged semi-coherently. The Noel Gallagher method of songwriting, you might call it… Pop at its disposable best. There’s a hook, a beat to tap your feet to, and a chorus that’ll stay in your head for a while. And sometimes that’s enough.

Pilot were from Edinburgh, and ‘January’ was the follow-up to the (much better, and definitely 100% glam) ‘Magic’. That, amazingly, had only made #11 late in ’74, but I’d suggest that this chart-topper was riding the wave created by that earlier hit. They had a few other, smaller hits, and lasted three albums, before splitting. The members of Pilot, though, have quite the legacy, having been involved with The Alan Parsons Project, produced for Kate Bush, and written for Westlife.

I’m pretty sure that this is the first and only time that a record has reached the top of the charts during the month it’s named after. ‘November Rain’ was not a #1 (and was released in March…), ‘It Might As Well Rain Until September’ should have been a #1, as it is a stone-cold classic, but no… In fact, I’ve just checked and bonus points shall be awarded if you can name the only other #1 record with a month in the title… (Hint: it’s coming up pretty soon…)

364. ‘Ms. Grace’, by The Tymes

1975 is off to an excellent start. After Status Quo comes another great, but very different #1 single. We’re back riding the soul train…

Ms. Grace, by The Tymes (their 1st and only #1)

1 week, from 19th – 26th January 1975

Why is it a soul ‘train’, by the way? You don’t get rock trains, rap trains, trance trains… Anyway. I like the way that soul records of the mid-seventies place great importance on their intros. ‘When Will I See You Again’, ‘Sad Sweet Dreamer’, ‘You’re My First…’, and now this, all have good, long, scene-setting intros. Opulent intros. (Slightly self-indulgent intros, maybe, but who cares…)

Ooh-ooh-ooh Ms. Grace, Satin and perfume and lace… The fact that it’s Ms. Grace, rather than Miss, makes this song what it is. The ‘Ms.’ suggesting a glamorous, sophisticated older lady, one who’s lived and loved, maybe misplaced a husband or two along the way… A woman who knows what she wants… The minute I saw your face, I knew that I loved you…

Ms. Grace is the sort of woman who turns rivers in their beds, while flowers bloom where she treads… You know the type. You’re the twinkle in my eye… These are lyrics that would sound ridiculous if accompanied solely by an acoustic guitar, but that perfectly suit a sweeping, swooping, strings and horns arrangement such as this.

It’s a perfect mix of the classic soul sounds of the sixties, and the glossier sounds of seventies Philly-soul. The strings are very now, and it’s another song where you can’t help picturing the disco ball spinning as it plays; while the doo-wop backing vocals and horns are already retro. It’s a mix that makes sense, as The Tymes had been around since the fifties, and had scored a US #1 way back in 1963 with ‘So Much In Love’.

I did wonder if this was perhaps a re-release, an older disc that had proven popular in dance halls, as with The Tams a few years back. But no, The Tymes just had some longevity, which had taken them well into the 1970s as soul veterans. ‘Ms. Grace’ was their last big hit, and soon after this they swapped in some female members. They still perform, with two founding members, Albert Berry and Norman Burnett.

Chart-toppers like this, and ‘Down Down’ from the week before, are the reason why January is often the best month for #1s. The quiet, post-Christmas spell allows slow-burners and leftovers to sneak a week which they might not have managed later in the year. Anyway, the next #1 will be the first one to actually have been released in 1975, and the year will be officially up and running… By that point, we’ll be in a new year ourselves. A very happy new year, then, to all who read this, and I hope you can join me in 2021, to continue our journey along the top of the charts!

363. ‘Down Down’, by Status Quo

Into 1975, then… And with a big ‘hell yes!’, because look. ‘Tis the Quo!

Down Down, by Status Quo (their 1st and only #1)

1 week, from 12th – 19th January 1975

It’s not a very Status Quo-like intro though: it’s light and jangly, almost Baroque, if that isn’t going too far… But then in it comes, the trademark Status Quo chug. They get a bit of stick – most of it completely undeserved – for sticking by this chugging three-chord formula throughout most of their career. But for their one and only UK chart-topper, it had to be there. Get down, Deeper and down, Down down, Deeper and down… That’s the chorus – I’m listening to the lyrics properly for the very first time – I want all the world to see, To see your laughin’, And your laughin’ at me… And that’s the first verse. It’s a tale of a couple trapped in a relationship-gone-very-wrong, and the singer seems hell-bent on mutual destruction. I know what you’re doing, What you’re doing to me, I’ll keep on and say to you, Again, again, again, again…

I suppose you have to get the idea of ‘getting down’ equalling dancing out your heads. That’s why the band didn’t call the song ‘Get Down’ (that and the fact that Gilbert O’Sullivan had had a #1 by that title a couple of years before.) ‘Down Down’, refers to the fact that the couple are dragging one another down into the mire. They really should split up, or at least take a break, but nope. Down they go. It’s a nasty idea for a rock song, backed up by a nasty, tight, gloriously repetitive riff.

Anyway, that was some very in-depth analysis of a Status Quo song. Let’s stop all that, and just enjoy this moment for what it is: one of Britain’s greatest and most successful rock ‘n’ roll band’s solitary week atop the charts. With one of their best singles. One of their heaviest, too. You can split Status Quo’s career into roughly three parts: the psychedelic years of the late sixties, the heavy blues rock of the early seventies, and the glossier, poppier boogie-woogie rock of the late seventies, eighties and beyond. ‘Down Down’ comes at the end of Part II, but it is still one of the heaviest songs to have topped the charts so far.

I love the frenzied fade-out, with the sledgehammer riff boring its way into your eardrums as it goes. (The album version drags it out much longer, with some bass flourishes, for good measure.) And I love Status Quo. I love that they just keep on keeping on, never caring about being cool, just rocking and rolling, rolling and rocking, despite even founder member Rick Parfitt’s death in 2016. They’ve released over one hundred singles, twenty-two of them reaching the Top 10. And they have a new tour just waiting to go, once the pandemic is over. They are legends.

And I wish this wasn’t the only chance I get to write about them. Hell, I’ll do a Status Quo Top 10, soon, just because I can. (They will be involved, uncredited, in one other chart-topper, in the mid-90s, but it is genuinely awful and I can’t bring myself to mention it until I absolutely have to…) I’ve been listening to them since I was a kid, and they are still a go to on the home commute after a hard day. In fact, I might be getting carried away but… I don’t think there’s a more enjoyably unpretentious listening experience to be had than their ‘Anniversary Waltz’ – a ten minute medley of old rock ‘n’ roll covers. Here’s a link… Rock on.

Before we get into 1975, why not listen to (almost) every number one since 1952…