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.

259. ‘Those Were the Days’, by Mary Hopkin

From the longest number one yet… To the second longest. Five minutes plus! Picture yourself in a tavern in Leningrad, back when it still was Leningrad. Big furry hats, sturdy men, even sturdier women…

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Those Were the Days, by Mary Hopkin (her 1st and only #1)

6 weeks, from 25th September – 6th November 1968

It reminds me of Petula Clark’s ‘This Is My Song’, an old-fashioned ballad with a sweeping intro. Instruments that I couldn’t begin to name jingle-jangle before the violins come in… Once upon a time there was a tavern, Where we used to raise a glass or two… It’s a song of longing and regret. The singer is reminiscing about happier times, dancing and singing down the pub. Those were the days, my friend, We thought they’d never end… If ‘bittersweet’ was a sound, then that sound would sound a lot like ‘Those Were the Days.’

I wasn’t just making up all that stuff about Leningrad – this really is based on an old Russian folk-tune. A Georgian folk-tune, actually, which had been around since the turn of the century. And you really can picture some Cossacks high-kicking in time to the steady beat, especially when we get to the dadadadas. That’s another thing that this record has in common with its predecessor ‘Hey Jude’: a chanted refrain. Except this one doesn’t drag on for four and a half minutes…

By the third verse, time has moved on. The singer stands outside the same tavern: In the glass I saw strange reflections, Was that lonely woman really me…? In the fourth verse she timidly enters the bar… Oh my friend we’re older but no wiser, For in our hearts the dreams are still the same… Do they get back together? Have one last fling for old time’s sake? Or do they just leave it at a smile? I guess we’ll never know…

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As a melody, it’s pretty irresistible, coming as it does from a time before ‘pop music’ existed. It sounds nostalgic, like you’ve heard it before, somewhere, sometime… It feels as if it should be from a musical. It was also produced by one Paul McCartney, who may have popped up once or twice already on this countdown. He’d known the tune for years, and finally chanced upon Mary Hopkin as a singer. She was barely eighteen, and looks every bit the sixties flower-power girl. Long hair, bare feet, that kind of thing. ‘Those Were the Days’ was her first, and by far her biggest hit. She would go on to have four more Top 10 singles in the next couple of years, and still records to this day.

In one way, this song stands out as odd. It’s sentimental, old-fashioned, a bit cheesy… But in another way it is very late sixties: there are folk-rock touches (the ‘B’-side was even a cover of The Byrds’ ‘Turn! Turn! Turn!’) and some very Beatlesy flourishes (the horns that come in midway through, for example). Plus, this is 1968, and anything goes at the top of the charts this year. There have been some weird chart-toppers, and some weird ones are still to come…

244. ‘Mighty Quinn’, by Manfred Mann

Our next #1 single starts with what sound suspiciously like pan-pipes. I leave that there as a word of warning. (It’s not actually pan-pipes, it’s a flute, but the tone has been set….)

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Mighty Quinn, by Manfred Mann (their 3rd and final #1)

2 weeks, from 14th – 28th February 1968

Come on without, Come on within, You’ll not see nothing like the Mighty Quinn… It’s a swaying chorus that greets us as the song proper gets underway. A chorus that I knew, without ever really having listened to the song in full. A chorus that begs a question – just who is the Mighty Quinn?

He is, naturally, an Eskimo. What else? To give the song its’ full title – ‘Quinn the Eskimo.’ And when Quinn the Eskimo gets here, Everybody’s gonna jump with joy… And why will Quinn’s arrival be greeted with such jubilation? To be honest, I’m now on listen number three and I’m still not sure.

The verses have a verve and swagger to them, that really really reminds of something else that I just can’t quite put my finger on. It’s very frustrating. Anyway… Everybody’s building ships and boats, Some are building monuments, Others are jotting down notes… It seems like a comment on modernity, and the fact that something is missing from modern life. Nobody can get no sleep, There’s someone on everyone’s toes, But when Quinn the Eskimo gets here, Everybody’s gonna want a dose… Or is it ‘a doze’, as in a nap? Either way, this is pretty abstract stuff.

Boiled down, it seems like Quinn is some kind of Messiah figure, who’s going to calm everyone down and chill everyone out (as well as gathering all the pigeons around him…) Bob Dylan – for yes, ‘tis he who wrote this – has claimed that the song is nothing more than a nursery rhyme. But that’s what the writers of strange and obscure lyrics always say, isn’t it? His version is much more folky and laid-back, and wouldn’t be released until several years after Manfred Mann’s.

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I’m not sure what to make of this one. On the one hand it is interesting. There can’t have been many #1 singles about Eskimos. On the other it just doesn’t quite work for me. It’s Dylan’s 2nd chart-topper as a songwriter and it is certainly not anywhere near the level of his previous one, ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’.

And what of Manfred Mann? They sign off on their chart-topping account, having hit the top spot with three very different records. The Beat-pop swing of ‘Do Wah Diddy Diddy’, the sweet ‘Pretty Flamingo’ and now this. A #1 in ’64, ’66 and now ’68. A band for even-numbered years. A 2nd-tier, perhaps slightly underrated sixties band? They were soon to become Manfred Mann’s Earth Band, and to go pretty heavy on the prog-rock. They’ve kept ‘The Mighty Quinn’ as part of their concerts, and apparently live versions can go on for a good ten minutes… I’m not sure if that sounds brilliant, or terrifying…

To be honest, my first exposure to this record was probably miles away from Manfred Mann and the 1960s pop charts. Irish football fans used to sing a version of this song for their big striker, Niall Quinn. The nickname stuck to such an extent that he even named his autobiography – you guessed it – ‘The Mighty Quinn.’

238. ‘Massachusetts (The Lights Went Out In)’, by The Bee Gees

A couple of posts ago, as I wrote about Scott McKenzie’s ‘San Francisco’, I made a big deal about #1 hits that reference places, and how uncommon they were. Of course, just to prove me wrong, the charts now throw up a song about Massachusetts.

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Massachusetts (The Lights Went Out In), by The Bee Gees (their 1st of five #1s)

4 weeks, from 11th October – 8th November 1967

And that’s not all that this next chart-topper has in common with McKenzie’s hit. It also, you know, sounds a lot like it. The same light guitar and the same chimes. The same chilled-out vibes. It even references San Fran in the second verse. It’s the (Indian) Summer of Love! Is it harsh to suggest that The Bee Gees were simply jumping on the hippy bandwagon?

Actually, yeah, it would be harsh. This is a retort to songs like ‘San Francisco’. It’s being sung from the point of view of someone who has left his home, in Massachusetts, to join in the summer’s festivities, and who now feels a bit homesick. Feel I’m going back to Massachusetts, Something’s telling me, I must go home… He left his girl standing alone, as the lights all went down in Massachusetts… But he’s now seen the error of his ways: They brought me back, To see my way with you…

It’s an interesting concept, and a quick piece of song writing to get the record out and in the charts mere weeks after the hits that it references. It turns what I initially felt was a so-so, slightly bland song into one worthy of note. The lights are going down in Massachusetts because everybody’s buggering off to the West Coast! I will remember Massachusetts… I wonder if the Massachusetts Tourist Board have ever used it in an ad campaign?

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Moving on – largely because ‘Massachusetts’ is a really difficult word to keep typing – let’s take a look at the band. The debutants atop the UK Singles Chart. The Bee Gees. You know, the band that in a decade’s time will take disco to the masses. I think that’s the ‘Bee Gees’ that most people think of: jumpsuits and sparkles and you should be dancing… It’s there in this record, mainly in the vocal harmonies that tremble a little higher than your regular pop record. (Though Robin Gibb sang lead on this one, while Barry sang falsetto on most of their seventies hits.)

They’re a fascinating band, actually. They will spread their five chart-toppers over exactly twenty years, covering three completely different versions of themselves, in terms of sound and image. But they’re not a band I’ve ever really been able to love, and I wish I could like their debut #1 more than I do… (Personally I think their final #1 is by far the best of the five.)

Anyway, they will be back soon enough. In between this and their next #1, they will release ‘Words’, which I can look on fondly as one of the first songs I ever learned to play on keyboard. Other interesting, and less self-revolving, bits of trivia about sixties-era Bee Gees include the fact that none of them had ever actually been to Massachusetts – they just liked the sound of it, and the fact that it was about as far away from San Francisco as you can get on the continental USA. (The Bee Gees, of course, weren’t American – they’re British/Australian.) And… I really like this one… ‘Massachusetts’ was the first ever non-Japanese #1 single on the Japanese charts! How about that…

236. ‘San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Some Flowers in Your Hair)’, by Scott McKenzie

And so we reach the final part of our Summer of Love trilogy. Three songs. Thirteen weeks. One summer that (kind of) changed the world. The psychedelic weirdness of Procol Harum, The Beatles going for a full-on hippy love-in, and now this. An ode to the city where it all started.

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San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Some Flowers in Your Hair), by Scott McKenzie (his 1st and only #1)

4 weeks, from 9th August – 6th September 1967

If you’re going, To San Francisco, Be sure to wear, Some flowers in your hair… The music is acoustic: folky and wistful… Very 1965 – already sounding a little old-fashioned in mid-’67. Something’s going ‘ting’. Somebody’s clapping their hands. In the streets, Of San Francisco, Gentle people, With flowers in their hair… (Apparently all the references to ‘flowers’ and ‘gentle people’ were added to make hippies sound less frightening!)

The singer, Scott McKenzie, also sounds as if he’s from another time, a little old-fashioned. Kind of clipped and proper. A bit square, if we’re being honest, like he’s chronicling the scenes in the parks of San Francisco, an observer rather than a partaker. I dunno, I’m left slightly underwhelmed. For the ‘unofficial anthem of the flower-power movement’ I’d have expected something a little more revolutionary…

But, you know, it’s a cute song. I like it. I knew it, as most people do, as a chorus in the back of my mind. And the most interesting bit comes in the middle-eight, when McKenzie breaks the fourth wall and explicitly references the counter-culture movement: All across the nation, Such a strange vibration, People in motion… There’s a whole generation, With a new explanation… The beat here is spikier, more urgent. It sounds almost like a rallying call.

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I’ve been to San Francisco twice. Once as a kid, and once just last summer. When one night, in the heart of downtown, a guy walked past us bellowing this very song out at the top of his lungs. San Fran being San Fran, he wasn’t oddest oddball we’d seen that day, or even that evening. But I liked the fact that the song was still there, still an anthem of the city fifty years on. And there is something about San Francisco, still, even if downtown is full of meth addicts and Haight-Ashbury is now a bit of a tourist trap. Something in the air that suggests that it could start a revolution again, if it wanted to…

I’m still not sure if Scott McKenzie himself was much of a hippy. He had quite long hair, but then everybody did in the sixties… What I do know is that he is a near perfect example of a one-hit wonder: his only other charting single in the UK reached #50. He was something of a journeyman singer-songwriter, even in 1967, having been in doo-wop and folk bands since the start of the decade. Post ‘San Francisco’, he performed with The Mamas and the Papas, and co-wrote The Beach Boys’ eighties hit ‘Kokomo’. He passed away in 2012.

So that’s that for the Summer of Love. Three game-changing #1 singles: one timeless, one crazy, and one pretty nice. Up next, we slip right back into the easy-listening mulch that has made up so much of 1967. But let’s not think about that just yet. Let’s focus instead on the fact that this is only the 3rd chart-topper to reference a city, after Jimmy Young’s ‘The Man From Laramie’ in 1955, and Winifred Atwell’s ‘The Poor People of Paris’ back in 1956. If we extend that to ‘places’, we could include The Song from ‘Moulin Rouge’, and, at a bit of a push, ‘The Garden of Eden’… Worth noting, though, as it’s not a common topic for #1 hits…

My Spotify playlist, for your pleasure:

206. ‘The Carnival Is Over’, by The Seekers

Another dose of easy-listening, faux-folk from Australia’s biggest band? (That wasn’t a question – you’re getting it whether you like it or not.)

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The Carnival Is Over, by The Seekers (their 2nd and final #1)

3 weeks, from 25th November – 16th December 1965

I just about managed to see the positive side of The Seekers’ first number one, ‘I’ll Never Find Another You’, for all it’s tweeness. But I think I’ll have to draw the line here… The term ‘dirge’ has cropped up once or twice in recent entries – The Beatles experimented with it in the background on ‘Ticket to Ride’, while ‘I Got You Babe’, for all its cuteness, was propped up with a pretty flat bass rhythm. ‘The Carnival Is Over’, though, is A Dirge, plain and simple.

The beat plods, the backing vocals are lifeless. You can almost picture the coffin being lowered into the ground. You start wishing they’d just get on with it… Say goodbye, My own true lover, As we sing, A lover’s song, How it breaks it my heart to leave you, Now the carnival is gone… Judith Durham, the lead singer, is once again on fine Sunday school teacher round the campfire form. Don’t get me wrong, she sings it very well; but it’s painfully proper.

It’s a song about two lovers, Pierrot and Columbine. Has Columbine fallen in love with a traveller? A handsome stranger who set up camp for a week or two? It’d have to have been a sailing carnival, thanks to the line about ‘harbour lights’… So maybe not. Or is ‘the carnival’ a metaphor for love, a love that’s no longer? Though the carnival is over, I will love you ‘till I die…

This record follows the same formula as The Seekers’ first #1, in that it was written and produced by Tom (brother of Dusty) Springfield. The melody was borrowed from an old Russian folk song, and once you learn that you think ‘Yes!’, this tune would make complete sense when bellowed out by a sturdy serf, gathering hay on the steppe. Not so much as a hit single in 1965. Yes, yes, yes it’s part of the folk-rock movement that’s become huge this year, but it’s a spectacularly lifeless song. You just want to shake them by the shoulders and tell them to liven it up a bit.

Apparently Springfield was inspired to write the lyrics after seeing the Rio carnival. Which seems hard to believe, as this record doesn’t exactly scream samba and piña coladas on the beach. In the bridge, there is an attempt at livening things up, with a nifty Spanish guitar riff. But that’s it. Plus the bridge also has a line about kisses ‘sweet as wine’, which is a metaphor I’ve never understood, what with most wines not being sweet at all. It should be ‘sweet as sherry’ is all I’m saying.

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And so we plod to a close. That’s that for The Seekers at the top of the UK charts. They would have three further Top 10 singles before splitting in 1968. They’ve reformed twice since then, and still perform to this day, minus Durham who retired in 2013. They were huge in their homeland, and were even voted ‘Australians of the Year’. I can see why, too, what with US and UK acts dominating since the dawn of rock ‘n’ roll, it’s always nice to feel a local connection to a successful artist.

One more thing to say about ‘The Carnival Is Over’ – it was a spectacularly high-selling record. Late 1965 seems to have been a high point for record sales as, after Ken Dodd’s ‘Tears’ had become the 3rd best-selling single of the decade, this disc also did well over a million. At last count it was sitting at No. 30 in the best-sellers of all time list. Not bad for a dirge. I’m clearly in the minority…

199. ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’, by The Byrds

Heading towards the big two zero zero, and our next record opens with a riff that every man and his dog has heard, probably more than once. File it alongside ‘Shakin’ All Over’ and ‘You Really Got Me’ as one of the most prominent riffs to have wound up at the top of the charts so far.

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Mr. Tambourine Man, by The Byrds (their 1st and only #1)

2 weeks, from 22nd July – 5th August 1965

But, unlike the two records I just mentioned, this isn’t an aggressive riff. There’s no lust here. It’s a riff that, instead, aims for the heart. It’s the musical equivalent of the sun streaming out from behind a cloud. And when the vocals kick in it only adds to the effect. Hey mister tambourine man, Play a song for me… I’m not sleepy and, There ain’t no place I’m goin’ to… Suddenly we’re in California, on a long stretch of golden sand, watching the surf break and the gulls soar…

Lyrically, too, we’re far from home. These are the most abstract, poetic lyrics we’ve heard in this countdown. ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’ is the only #1 so far to have an ‘Interpretations’ section to its Wikipedia page. Take me for a trip upon your magic swirling ship, Oh my senses have been stripped, And my hands can’t feel to grip… Not weird enough for you? How about the moment when you expect a chorus (I love the way they draw it out, prolong the pleasure, by adding this gorgeous bridge) but get an insistent plea: I’m ready to go anywhere, I’m ready for to fade, On to my own parade, Cast your dancin’ spell my way…

Huh. I think, you know, that they may be making some drug references there. Going for trips, and senses being stripped… It’s the summer of ’65, and counter-culture has arrived at the top of the UK singles charts. The sixties are really starting to swing. Groovy, baby!

It’s not just the lyrics that feel like something new, though. There’s the jingle-jangle guitars (referenced in the jingle-jangle morning lyric), the structure of the song – chorus, verse, verse, chorus – and the long, trippy fade-out. As with so many of our chart-toppers over the past two years, ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’ sounds like the stakes being raised. It’s the sound of pop music being pushed forward.

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It’s folk rock, but it’s a mile away from the couple of folk rock hits we’ve covered previously. The Highwaymen’s ‘Michael’ sounds like it was from another century – well, it was 1961 – while The Seekers sounded like they were merely playing at being folkies. The Byrds are the real deal. Who was the tambourine man? What was his ship? Does it matter? Just listen, and let yourself be swept away… Meanwhile, this song’s folk-rock credentials are helped massively by the fact it was written by a certain Robert Allen Zimmerman.

Bob Dylan will never (gasp!) top the singles charts as an artist. But this is the first of three #1s that he will enjoy as a composer. (I think it’s three… please correct me if I’m wrong… He has written an awful lot of songs…) Dylan’s version is, naturally, twice as long as this one – and it’s safe to say that The Byrds make it their own. He’s also gone on to deny that it’s in any way about drugs. So there you go.

‘Mr. Tambourine Man’ was The Byrds first hit in both the US and the UK – impressive considering they had only formed the year before. Following this, they were more successful in their homeland (‘Turn! Turn! Turn!’ hit the top there while it only reached #26 in Britain.) But even in the US their popularity didn’t last long. They were just too darn experimental, it seems, to maintain chart success. They went psychedelic, then Indian, then country, all the while changing members like most bands change socks… It couldn’t last; but their influence lingers on.

I’ve mentioned it many times before, but the vast majority of Merseybeat, R&B and rock groups that we’ve met since the Beat explosion have been British. Compare that to the fifties, when every rock ‘n’ roll hit, good or bad, was coming from across the Atlantic. Slowly but surely, though, the Americans are now staking their claim on the sixties. We’ve had some Motown, some Spector-patented Wall of Sound, and now some sun-drenched Californian folk-rock. There may not be too many US #1s at the moment; but when they do arrive, they’re golden.

188. ‘I’ll Never Find Another You’, by The Seekers

For the first time in a good nine months – since The Four Pennies’ bland ode to ‘Juliet’ – do we arrive at a #1 single that I have never heard before. This is how it used to be, of course, in the pre-rock days – before rock ‘n’ roll came along, with all those famous songs in tow. Almost every post was a step into the unknown…

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I’ll Never Find Another You, by The Seekers (their 1st of two #1s)

2 weeks, from 25th February – 11th March 1965

Speaking of rock ‘n’ roll, and the fifties and all that… The opening chords of this latest chart-topper sound a lot like ‘La Bamba’. A mellower, more folksy version of the Ritchie Valens hit to be sure, but they’re there. It’s a promising opening… that lasts until the singers open their mouths…

There’s a new world somewhere, They call the promised land, And I’ll be there someday, If you could hold my hand… Several earnest, fresh-faced voices chime together. I’m getting strong Christians-round-a-campfire vibes… I still need you there beside me, No matter what I do, For I know I’ll never find another you… Or maybe proto-hippies, the first feelers of a movement that will go full-on mainstream in a couple of years? The lyrics sure do sound like they could be about joining a commune (‘The promised land’?)

Not quite. This record is, though, our first slice of sixties folk-rock. The gentle guitars, the clear vocals, the tambourine that gets a good shaking in the background… It’s a genre that I don’t think was ever quite as popular in the UK as in America, where Peter, Paul and Mary, The Byrds, The Mamas and the Papas, Simon & Garfunkel and, of course, Bob Dylan were big, big stars. But we’d had fair warning of it – remember back in 1961, when the collegiate folk band The Highwaymen scored a surprise #1 with their version of ‘Michael’ (Row Your Boat etc. etc.)? They were from across the pond, too.

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I’m not convinced by this song, to be honest… There’s something a bit cloying about it, a bit happy-clappy. And the lead singer – Judith Durham – sounds kind of like a Sunday school teacher gone rogue. Plus the lyrics don’t really go anywhere – it’s just a long list of what she can do with her man by her side… When I walk through the storm you’ll be my guide… and I could lose it all tomorrow, And never mind at all… etcetera and so on. It’s not terrible; but it’s the worst number one for a while. Probably since ‘Juliet’, the last chart-topper that I’d never heard of… And in its defence, we’ve just enjoyed the highest-quality run of #1 singles in British chart-history, and it would be unfair to completely write a record off just because it doesn’t hit the heights of ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ or ‘You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’.

I am, for example, a sucker for those yearning chords that pop up time and time again in folk-rock. See lines like You’ll be my someone, Forever and a day… Or If I should lose your love dear, I don’t know what I’ll do… The first song I ever loved – I’m reliably informed, as I was too young to remember – was ‘Puff the Magic Dragon’, which I would sing anywhere and everywhere as a toddler, driving everyone around me to the edge of insanity. And ‘Puff’’s got plenty of those yearning, minor-key chords in it. Who knows – maybe I’m a folky at heart?

Of course, all that stuff I just spouted about ‘I’ll Never Find Another You’ being an all-American slice of hippyish folk is undone by the fact that The Seekers were Australian, and that the song was composed by British songwriter Tom Springfield (brother of Dusty – who keeps cropping up via other people’s songs – when will she appear on her own merits?) But hey. It sounds American, and was definitely influenced by American folk-rock artists of the day, so we’re claiming it for the Yanks.

To finish, I’ll return to the pre-rock days that I mentioned at the start of the post. Back then, as Vera Lynn, Dickie Valentine, Winifred Atwell et al were jostling for attention at the top of the charts, the word I reached for more often than most was ‘twee’. And that’s what this is: the twee-est number one single we’ve had in a long time. Altogether then, grab the marshmallows and back round the campfire for another singalong!

Catch up with this handily compiled playlist!

172. ‘The House of the Rising Sun’, by The Animals

What have we here, then? A riff kicks in – and keeps on kicking for the next four and a half minutes – beckoning us towards a song about a whorehouse-slash-gambling den. Is this the moment in which the ‘and roll’ is dropped, and ‘rock’ strikes out on his own, with a capital R, O, C and K?

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The House of the Rising Sun, by The Animals (their 1st and only #1)

1 week, from 9th – 16th July 1964

It’s an ominous, minor-key intro. Nothing good is going to come of it. And when the vocals start, the mood darkens further. There is, A house, In New Orleans… They call the Rising Sun… (I’ve always liked the flamboyant way that the singer pronounces ‘New Orlay-ons’ in his sonorous voice.) And it’s been the ruin, Of many a poor boy, And God, I know, I’m one…

A young man, son of a tailor-woman and a gambler, heads into the latter-day Sodom and Gomorrah that is The Big Easy, and comes unstuck. How exactly he comes unstuck isn’t elaborated on – it is still only 1964, after all – but you can imagine. Cards, booze, women… If this were a movie, then the frenzied organ solo at the midway point would be the soundtrack to his descent into depravity.

Then comes a word of warning: Oh mother, Tell your children, Not to do what I have done… Except, the singer can’t heed his own advice – can’t resist the temptation of New Orleans: I got one foot on the platform, The other foot on the train, I’m going back to New Orleans, To wear that ball and chain… The organ grows more and more intense, the vocals wracked and howling – a voice that could cause avalanches. It’s completely different to Roy Orbison’s approach in the preceding #1, but it’s every bit as impressive. And the final, drawn-out horror movie chord that the song ends on is, frankly, terrifying.

This is something different… Every so often we arrive at #1s which feel like a level-up – chart-topping discs that raise the stakes (gambling pun very much intended). ‘Rock Around the Clock’, ‘Great Balls of Fire’, ‘How Do You Do It?’… and now this. After ‘House of the Rising Sun’ has blasted your eardrums, The Beatles and their Merseybeat chums sound like school kids. The Animals were men. The name alone is raw, and untamed. It’s also the longest number one single so far by some distance. The Animals didn’t edit their singles for nobody!

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They were a five-piece from Newcastle, and the lead singer with the voice of a wolf was one Eric Burden, a man who started smoking aged 10, fell in love with an older woman aged 13, and who preferred drinking ale to going to school (they breed them tough in the north-east.) He is, allegedly, The Eggman of ‘I Am the Walrus’ fame, due to an incident involving amyl nitrate and a fried breakfast… I really want to read his autobiography. Besides this disc, The Animals gave us two more ‘Best of the 60s’ perennials – ‘Please Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood’ and ‘We’ve Got to Get Out of This Place’. They weren’t ones for shortening their song titles either…

‘House of the Rising Sun’ has an equally interesting, and hard-edged history. Sources differ, but it seems certain that the song is as old as the 17th century. It originated either in England or France. The lyrics were originally about a woman led astray; The Animal’s version was the first to reverse the gender.

If this record hitting #1 is a game-changer – giving us pure, southern R&B at the top of the hit parade – then it has to be viewed as the first of a two-parter. While this is a seminal record; The Animals chart career didn’t last. Our next, bluesy chart-topper may not be as well-known, but the group that recorded it are perhaps the most famous rock ‘n’ roll band in history…

127. ‘Michael’, by The Highwaymen

We begin our next chart-topper with a whistle. We haven’t had a whistle-y #1 for a while, maybe not since the ‘Age of Whistling’ back in 1957-’58. And then an oh-so gentle, almost soothing acoustic guitar comes in…

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Michael, by The Highwaymen (their 1st and only #1)

1 week, from 12th – 19th October 1961

Back in my last post, I asked you to imagine this year, 1961, as a huge variety show, with all manner of artists on the bill. Well, keep that image in mind and picture, as The Shadows wrap up their little Hawaiian interlude, the curtains parting to reveal a forest backdrop, a pile of leaves and upturned logs, a ‘fire’ made from strips of crepe paper and a fan, and five fresh-faced boys – The Highwaymen.

The tune is instantly recognisable, by anyone who’s visited a church, or been a Boy Scout, or attended a Primary School… Michael row the boat ashore, Hallelujah, Michael row the boat ashore, Hallelujah… Just when you thought 1961 couldn’t get any more eclectic – we’re getting a hymn!

Fifty percent of this song is that very chorus, repeated over and over, and over. In between, each Highwayman takes turns in singing a single-line verse: Sister help to trim the sails, Hallelujah… The river Jordan is chilly and cold, Hallelujah… The river is deep and the river is wide, Milk and honey on the other side… Hallelujah, Hallelujah and Hallelujah… It ends with the same haunting whistles that kicked us off. And that’s it.

Wiki lists this as ‘Collegiate Folk’, and I am 100% certain that this is the first and only ‘Collegiate Folk’ record to top the UK Singles Charts. It’s a very accurate genre title too, as all five Highwaymen were undergraduate students at Wesleyan University in Connecticut. Under what circumstances they went from a mere college band to trans-Atlantic chart-toppers is unclear. It really does beg the question…

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…what in seven hells is this doing atop the UK hit parade? If you thought The Temperance Seven or Shirley Bassey’s show-tunes were a bit on the random side then this is completely out of the left-field. At the same time, though, I will at some point have to realise and accept that literally anything can top the singles chart. We’ve had some weird number ones; and there is weirder to come, trust me on that.

And yet… This may be a weird chart-topper; but it’s a very simple, very normal song. Kinda dull. You can understand why Benny Hill, and Mr Blobby, and The Teletubbies – with all their technicolour silliness – have UK #1s more than you can understand this becoming the biggest selling single in the country for one week in the autumn of ’61. The five boys in this band – Dave, Bob, Chan and two Steves – are spectacular in their ordinariness. They look like the sweetest bunch of apple-pie lovin’, church-goin’, all-American boys-next-door. A ‘highwayman’, as far as British readers will be aware, was a 17th-18th century armed robber, which makes it look like an odd choice of band name for such sweet looking lads. Even their voices are – how to put this nicely? – fairly ordinary. But what do I know – maybe their ordinariness is what won people over? They are clearly not trying to be Elvis, or Liberace, or even Cliff, and people do like an everyman with an acoustic guitar…

I have to admit that – as one of the most irreligious people around – I want to hate this record. But I can’t. It’s a nice song. It’s soothing. I’ll put it on next time I can’t sleep. And The Highwaymen didn’t much bother the charts after this. All but one of them returned to their studies after the success died down. But maybe, just maybe, the folk scene that grew so big in the mid-to-late sixties – The Byrds, The Seekers, Peter, Paul and Mary, even Bob Dylan – can perhaps trace a small part of its popularity back to this unlikely smash hit.

Two other things to mention before we’re done… One: that these Highwaymen are in no way related to the Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash supergroup (though they did try to sue them for appropriating their name). And two: the fact that this great African-American gospel hymn was white-washed to such success at the height of the US Civil Rights movement perhaps says something about American society at the time… Something that I am in no way qualified to discuss and will just leave hanging here…

That aside, I’m just excited to see what on earth 1961 will throw up at the top of the UK singles charts next! Pan-pipes? The can-can? Mongolian throat-singing?? Whatever’s coming – bring it on!