And now, in a change to the scheduled programming, something slightly different. Don’t adjust your sets.
Eye Level, by The Simon Park Orchestra (their 1st and only #1)
4 weeks, from 23rd September – 21st October 1973
Well, it wouldn’t be the early 1970s if there wasn’t a random instrumental just around the corner, waiting to spend a month on top of the charts… From the Royal Scots Dragoon Guard, to Lieutenant Pigeon, to this. I mean, it’s pleasant enough. It’s very grand, almost Baroque… When it gets into its full sway I feel like I’ve just been announced at the court of Louis XIV.
There must be a story behind this getting to #1 – it’s not your everyday kind of chart-topper. In fact, the game is given away by the song’s sub-title: ‘Original Theme From ‘Van Der Valk’’. ‘Van Der Valk’ being a popular detective drama set in the Netherlands, which ran for five series over twenty years. In fact, it just got remade for ITV this spring! How have I never heard of this show until today? (Apparently there was *outrage* among fans of the original when the 2020 remake changed the theme tune…)
I quite like this, to be honest. It’s very lush, dense, and proper. It makes you stand up straight while you listen to it. It doesn’t sound much like the theme to a detective show should, but hey ho. My biggest disappointment is that it ends with a whimper, when it feels like it should have built to something much bigger, and more elegant.
Simon Park and his orchestra seem to have appeared from nowhere after being chosen to perform ‘Eye Level’. It had been released the year before to little fanfare, before a re-release following the TV programme’s success sent it flying to the top. It is an official million-selling single, and there aren’t too many of those around. Credit where it’s due. The orchestra went on to release a few more singles, and soundtracked a few more movies and shows.
One of those little diversions, then, that come along every so often on our journey through the charts. Nice enough; if a little out of place. Moving on…
Follow along, TV theme tunes and all, with my playlist…
I’ve heard of this song before – for better or for worse – but don’t think I’d ever heard it, in full, until now. And boy, is it strange…
Mouldy Old Dough, by Lieutenant Pigeon (their 1st and only #1)
4 weeks, from 8th October – 5th November 1972
It starts with a military drum beat, and for a second I’m worried that we’re getting 1972’s second pipes ‘n’ drums #1 single. Then we get a flute, and I’m picturing an orange march. Then we get a boozy, woozy, synthesised rock ‘n’ roll piano, and we’re in a crowded German beerhall.
Two immediate points of reference jump out at me. There’s Chicory Tip’s similarly stomping ‘Son of My Father’ from a few months back. And then there’s the work of Joe Meek a decade ago: The Tornados, and ‘Have I the Right?’ and so on. There’s a lot of similarities there, but they don’t fully explain what the hell is going on here.
‘Mouldy Old Dough’ is an instrumental, save for the title being growled by what sounds like a very old man with no teeth. Apparently the line Dirty old man… is also buried in there, deep within the soupy mix, but I can’t make it out. It is so rough and ready, this record. It sounds like an old demo that was burnt, buried in a shallow grave, then dug up years later, released and sent to the top of the charts…
Have you ever eaten durian? It’s a huge spiky fruit, really popular in south-east Asia, with a smell somewhere between sweaty socks and rotten onions. Apparently, though, if you can get past the stench the actual flesh of the fruit is quite nice. I’ve never been able to get past the stink but feel that ‘Mouldy Old Dough’ might be the durian fruit of #1 singles. Get past your initial doubts and reservations, your initial what the hell?, and by the third or fourth listen you start to find something charming buried deep within its relentless, plodding, churning beat.
The backstory of Lieutenant Pigeon only adds to the record’s charm. They were an experimental band from Coventry, fronted by Rob Woodward, and featuring his mum, Hilda, on piano. She’s basically the star of this record, as it’s her melancholy piano line that holds it all together. ‘Mouldy Old Dough’ was recorded in their living room (what I mistook for synths is just poor sound insulation!) When asked what it was all about, Rob admitted that he had no idea… Despite being the composer. Honest. I like it. The follow-up to this, ‘Desperate Dan’, made #17 and after that the charts were a Pigeon-free zone… The Woodwards are still the only mother and son combo to ever top the UK singles chart.
And isn’t that nice? Lieutenant Pigeon still record and release music to this day, mainly online, while Hilda died twenty years back. She was fifty-eight when this record hit the top of the charts, and she’s still in the Top 10 oldest people to feature on a number one single. By the end the marching beat has transformed into a glam-rock stomp as we fade out. As weird as this record sounds – and it does sounds pretty darn weird – it still somehow fits in with the styles of the time…
So, um… Our next number one single, from the spring of 1972, is… *checks notes*… a bagpipe instrumental.
Amazing Grace, by The Pipes & Drums & Military Band of the Royal Scots Dragoon Guard (their 1st and only #1)
5 weeks, from 9th April – 14th May 1972
I really don’t think I can write anything interesting about the record itself. It is literally just the well-known hymn, ‘Amazing Grace’, played by a military band. There have been plenty of outliers hit the top of the charts before this – singers and styles that have stood out like a sore thumb against the sounds of the time – Russ Conway’s piano, Frank Ifield’s yodelling, traditional ballads from the likes of Ken Dodd and Des O’Connor. None, though, have stood out as much as this.
Why was this a huge, five-week #1 single? There must be a story behind it. ‘Amazing Grace’ had been recorded in a popular version by American folk singer Judy Collins in 1969, whose arrangement the Royal Scots Dragoon Guard copied. Hers was a statement against the Vietnam War, part of the late sixties counter-culture that gave us ‘Woodstock’ and ‘In the Year 2525’. Meanwhile, Johnny Cash, Rod Stewart and Aretha Franklin all recorded their own versions of the hymn in the early to mid-seventies.
Is it that simple, then? A record by some soldiers – albeit not ones directly involved in any conflict – appealing to a public that were seeing images of war on their TV sets every night? I’m not a religious person, but ‘Amazing Grace’ is a spectacular piece of music, one that touches somewhere deep within. It’s one of the best known songs in the English language, and so for it to appear at the top of the charts in some form seems apt, though it was apparently much more popular in American churches than in the UK.
A bit of history: ‘Amazing Grace’ dates from the 1790s, instantly making it one of the very ‘oldest’ chart-toppers. Its writer, John Newton, had been a slave trader whose ship ran aground in a storm. This caused him to reassess his life, become a clergyman, and write this hymn about his experiences: Amazing grace, How great thou art, That saved a wretch like me… In the 1800s it became an abolitionist anthem and then very popular in African-American churches.
My problem with this record lies not in the religious-ness of it, or that it’s old-fashioned… My problem is with the bagpipes. I am Scottish. Yet I hate the sound of bagpipes. Something went wrong, somewhere, and I malfunctioned. It’s like being a cat that has no interest in pieces of string. Where most people hear a heart-tugging call from the misty glens and shimmering lochs; I just hear a shrill banshee-shriek. Listen to the first five seconds of this record: the drone and then the shriek. It’s not pleasant.
I enjoy it more when the brass section takes over in the second half of the song. But by the end we’re back to the lone piper. Except pipers are never really ‘lone’: they’re ten-a-penny on Edinburgh’s street corners in summer, quite often blasting out dirges like this. In conclusion, then, I’m with the stuffy old Director of Bagpipes at Edinburgh Castle who, when this record hit the charts, summoned the Pipe Major of the Royal Scots for a dressing down. How dare he demean the venerable bagpipe by featuring it on a pop record! Sadly for him, and all bagpipe haters around the world, ‘Amazing Grace’ is not even the biggest hit record of the 1970s to feature the instrument… Sigh.
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.
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.
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…
And so we reach one of the 20th century’s best-known pieces of music. People might not be aware that they know the theme from ‘The Good, The Bad and The Ugly’, but if you can mimic the woo-wee-oo-wee-oo well enough, then they should be able to come back with a passable waa-waa-waa…
The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, by Hugo Montenegro, His Orchestra & Chorus (his 1st and only #1)
4 weeks, from 13th November – 11th December 1968
It’s so famous that it sounds kind of clichéd now. It’s been used in so many spaghetti-western spoofs – a gun slinger in a poncho with an orange setting sun in the background, close-up on his narrowed eyes as he spits his tobacco on the ground (the famous refrain is supposed to sound like a coyote howling.) You’re almost surprised to remember that it was an actual real piece of music, soundtrack to real movie all of its very own.
Back in the fifties and early-sixties, when it seemed as if every second chart-topper was an instrumental, I regularly complained that lyric-less songs can sometimes meander and get lost. Not always, but for every ‘Apache’ or ‘Nut Rocker’ there was a ‘Side Saddle’. Instrumentals need a bit of atmosphere about them to cover up for the fact that you can’t sing along. The instruments need to become the voice. Which is what happens with this record. This instrumental passes the test. You definitely can sing along to it.
Speaking of ‘Apache’, this theme owes a bit of a debt to The Shadows when the twangy, Hank Marvin-ish guitars come in. It also reminds me of ‘Running Bear’ (1960 was a big year for the cowboys and injuns themed #1s) with its rep rop ooh wah too chants, which came from band leader Hugo Montenegro himself, and which sound a lot like someone counting in a strange, forgotten tongue.
It’s a fun mish-mash of sixties styles – a bit latin, a bit rock ‘n’ roll and a bit psychedelic. It sounds old-fashioned at the same time as sounding like nothing that’s reached the top of the charts before. It was, of course, from the movie of the same name, starring Clint Eastwood but this isn’t the version used in the film. The original was written and recorded by Ennio Morricone – listen to it here – and it sounds a bit bleaker, a bit more like a movie soundtrack should. This version is softer, warmer – more of a pop song. Why it hit #1 a full two years after the movie’s release…? I’m not sure.
I’m glad it did make a belated chart-topper, though. It’s given us yet another strange side-road to wander down on our journey through 1968. We’re almost there, though – almost made it through this most eclectic of years… Hugo Montenegro wouldn’t enjoy chart success on the scale of ‘The Good, The Bad and The Ugly’ again, though he tried his hand at covers of several of the songs we’ve heard elsewhere on this countdown: ‘Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White’, ‘Stranger in Paradise’, ‘Good Vibrations’… He died very young, in his mid-fifties, in 1981.
We may have left the golden age of the instrumental behind us – the days of Winifred Atwell, Eddie Calvert and, of course, The Shadows – long ago. But there are a few more still to come. Looking at the modern day, I can’t remember the last big instrumental hit. Maybe a nineties dance track…? Though they usual had at least one vocal refrain. I can’t help feel that it’s something we’ve lost – our love for the instrumental single – because when a good one comes along it’s usually quite the experience…
Once again, The Shadows replace themselves at #1, and all I have to say is ‘Thank God!’ Thank God that ‘Summer Holiday’ wasn’t their final UK chart topper. For the group that contributed more to British rock ‘n’ roll than any other act to bow out from the top spot with a record as sickeningly twee and limp as that would have been a travesty.
Foot Tapper, by The Shadows (their 12th and final #1)
1 week, from 28th March – 4th April 1963
Thank God for ‘Foot Tapper’, then, as it ensures that Hank, Bruce and the other two score their final number one with, in my opinion, the best of the lot. OK, ok, ‘Foot Tapper’ might not be as sweeping as ‘Apache’, as epic as ‘Wonderful Land’ and it might not rock as hard as ‘Kon-Tiki’; but it is an insanely catchy little number.
What does it consist of? A light and limber riff? Check. Natty little drum fills? Check. A bouncy bassline? Check. A super-appropriate title? Check. (Go on – press play on the link below and watch your feet start tappin’.) Unlike their previous #1, ‘Dance On’, this one really does get you moving. This record just has a joie de vivre about it, a certain je ne sais quoi… It’s a song of such special potency that it’s got me speaking French.
It’s a very fitting way to round off three months of unparalleled Shadows dominance in the UK Singles charts. We’ve had The Shadows with Cliff twice (‘The Next Time’ and ‘Summer Holiday’), we’ve had solo-Shadows (‘Dance On!’ and now this) and we’ve had ex-Shadows (‘Diamonds’ from Jet Harris and Tony Meehan). They’ve replaced themselves at the top twice this year already, and now sit right behind Elvis Presley himself as the act with the most #1s in chart history. (Skip forward forty-six years, and The Shadows still remain joint-fifth in the all-time #1s list – level with Take That, and behind only Elvis, The Beatles, Cliff, Westlife and Madonna.)
And while we’re on the theme of Dominance, it is worth noting that ‘Foot Tapper’ is the 3rd chart-topper to be taken from the soundtrack to ‘Summer Holiday’. I’m not sure that there has ever been a more successful soundtrack than that. And… these Cliff ‘n’ Shadows number ones over the past few months have all been produced by the same man: Norrie Paramor. The same Paramor that also produced the only non-Shadows chart-topper of 1963 so far, Frank Ifield’s ‘The Wayward Wind’. So it could be argued that it is he that truly has the charts in a chirpy, string-drenched stranglehold.
Back to the record in question, though, and I am not alone in holding ‘Foot Tapper’ in high-regard. The tune was, of course, the theme to ‘Sounds of the Sixties’ on Radio 2 – a show that I’ve mentioned before and will happily mention again whenever the opportunity arises. This meant that, no matter what tunes had been played in the preceding two hours – Procol Harum, Velvet Underground, experimental Scott Walker ‘B’-sides… – the last tune you always heard was this. Da-da-da-doo-doo, Doo-doo-dun-dun-da-da…
And so. We arrive at the end of an era. And I don’t just mean in the sense that we’ll never hear from The Shadows again. I mean that this is officially the end of the ‘rock ‘n’ roll age’, which we’ve been wading through ever since Bill Haley shouted ‘One, two, three o’clock…’ back in November 1955. Because of this I’m going to break my own rules slightly and do the next recap one song early (Gasp!) The first number one single after said recap will then be the starting pistol for perhaps the biggest, most influential movement in British popular music history! I’m excited! Are you…?
Here’s a record I’d never heard before; and a rockin’ little record it is too. A hidden ‘gem’ (gettit?) of a record. Not to rag on the previous #1, ‘Dance On!’, too much, but this is how you do instrumental rock ‘n’ roll!
Diamonds, by Jet Harris & Tony Meehan (their 1st and only #1s)
3 weeks, from 31st January – 21st February 1963
We start with a cool drum intro, and then a riff straight from the spaghetti-est of spaghetti westerns. Imagine the villain of the piece striding over a sun-baked hill, heat-haze rising around him. He stops and fixes the camera with a thousand-yard stare, spitting his tobacco over the dusty ground…
Then we get horns – Ba! Babababa-Ba! – and it feels as if the sixties, the ‘Swinging Sixties’ ™ are born. It goes from menacing to groovy in 0.5 seconds. First ‘Lovesick Blues’, and now this, have had what I would call a quintessentially ‘sixties’ sound – the sound that will define the next three or four years. And it’s great, the call and response from the brass section, but it’s not the best thing about this record. Because next we get…
A. Drum. Solo. In a number one hit single. I kid you not. What I thought the reserve of eighties hair metal bands and Phil Collins were around as early as 1963! I wish I could somehow describe it; but how on earth can you describe a drum solo? It lasts a good twenty seconds – one-tenth of the whole record! – and is great. That’s my official line on it. ‘Great.’
This whole song sounds familiar. But not. Like The Shadows… But not. It almost sounds as if it’s been recorded by The Shadows alter-egos, as if Hank, Bruce and the boys were moonlighting as darker, less clean-cut, slightly more evil versions of themselves…
Which may be a fitting description, as the two men playing on this record – Jet Harris and Tony Meehan – were (dun dun dun!) ex-Shadows. Harris, who we’ve heard playing bass on all but one Shadows chart-topper, had left the group in 1962 because of his drinking habits. Meehan, he of drum solo fame, had left a few months before that to go into producing. Thus, in the space of a few weeks we’ve had The Shadows supporting Cliff at #1 with ‘The Next Time / Bachelor Boy’, then going it alone with ‘Dance On!’, and now two former band members taking their turn at the top. Utter Shadows domination of the UK charts!
I’m not sure if Harris and Meehan were on good terms with the other band members after their departures, but I do like the image of the pair celebrating their revenge in knocking their former band off the top of the charts. Interestingly (perhaps…) is the fact that Meehan left in October 1961, when ‘Kon-Tiki’ was at #1, and Harris left in April ’62, when ‘Wonderful Land’ was in the middle of its run at the top. Going out on a high, I suppose. The pair never re-joined The Shadows; but did occasionally collaborate during the eighties and nineties. Meehan died in 2005, Harris in 2011.
If we were to make this into a contest – Shadows Vs Ex-Shadows – then the latter win, hands down. ‘Diamonds’ is a clearly superior record to ‘Dance On!’. But… Harris and Meehan’s solo careers were short lived; almost at a one-hit-wonder level. While The Shadows are one of the most successful British groups of all time. ‘Diamonds’, though, stays with you: that riff and those horns running through your head long after the record has stopped.
Two interesting tit-bits before I finish. In 1962, Tony Meehan had the chance to sign The Beatles for Decca Records. He turned them down… And, the rhythm guitar on ‘Diamonds’ was played by one Jimmy Page, in one of his first session musician, pre-Yardbirds and Led Zeppelin gigs. Which is as close as one of the most famous guitarists in the history of rock ‘n’ roll will ever get to a #1 single!
I might have suggested in my last post that Cliff and The Shadows utterly dominating the early months of 1963 would be a bad thing. I feel I spoke in haste; and would like to take it back. Especially when I see that The Shadows only have a handful of #1s left to come. We’ll be missing them soon enough.
Dance On!, by The Shadows (their 10th of twelve #1s)
1 week, from 24th – 31st January 1963
Besides – this is a significant moment in British chart history. Fresh from accompanying Cliff on ‘The Next Time’ and ‘Bachelor Boy’, The Shadows now grab a week at the summit for themselves. Not content with being the first act to replace themselves at #1 – back when ‘Apache’ took over from ‘Please Don’t Tease’ – they’ve only gone and done it again!
And unlike their most recent releases, there’s neither a piano nor any strings in sight. It’s just the guitars, the bass and the drums – four boys having a tight little boogie. It’s unmistakably a Shadows record – you’d know as much when Hank Marvin’s lead guitar comes in on ten seconds. I like the bass here, and the way the main riff is drenched in echo. Plus the false endings, where the guitar crunches back to life like a motorbike revving, are cool.
These things aside, though, it is a bit of a throwaway disc. Nice enough, but you’ve pretty much forgotten how it went five seconds after it ends. It’s The Shadows at their most Russ Conway-ish: a decent melody in search of a purpose. Even the name of the record – ‘Dance On!’ – is pretty basic compared to the ‘Boy’s Own’ adventures conjured up by their earlier #1s: ‘Apache’ and ‘Kon-Tiki’… They sounded as if they wanted to tell a story; this just wants you to shake your hips.
Which, I suppose, is a fundamental aspect of pop music. That’s what it all boils down to at the end of the day: shaking your hips. And you never get the feeling that this record is trying to be anything more than something you can dance (on!) to. Which makes it kind of hard to write about…
There you have it, then. The Shadows follow Elvis in hitting a double-figured amount of chart-topping discs. Hurrah! And, if you thought them replacing themselves at the top for the second time was an impressive act of chart dominance, you’ll never believe who is about to cut short the reign of ‘Dance On!’ at the top …
To fully appreciate this next #1, I want you to go back and listen to the previous chart-topper, Elvis’s ‘She’s Not You’. Off you go. Done? Good. Because we need to make sure we know exactly where we are in October 1962. We’re in a bit of a post rock ‘n’ roll slump, with lots of middling pop and quirky novelties rather than an easily definable ‘Sound of ‘62’. And after that mediocre piece of Elvis-by-numbers, this song’s going to Blow. Your. Mind.
Telstar, by The Tornados (their 1st and only #1)
5 weeks, from 4th October – 8th November 1962
The intro alone to ‘Telstar’ has enough innovative weirdness for there to have been papers written and conferences held on it. It’s an intro that sets a scene. I imagine a dust track at night in the Nebraskan desert. What sounds like a car coming to a stop. A weird humming and hissing. Ominous music that grows nearer and nearer. Pure B-movie soundtrack brilliance. It sounds bizarre listening to it from the comfort of 2019. It must have freaked people the hell out when they first heard it in 1962.
‘Telstar’ is an instrumental, one with a pretty simple and fairly repetitive melody. I’m no musician, but I’m guessing that, looking at the music written down on paper, it’s a tune that The Shadows – the pre-eminent instrumental group of the age – could have knocked out in their sleep. But, if you study ‘Telstar’ simply as notes on a page then you are missing everything else that makes this record amazing.
This is The Shadows recast as aliens. This is The Shadows playing as the Cantina band from Star Wars. There ain’t no guitar or drums here. Or, at least, there might be; but they’re way off in the background. This is an electronic record. A fully electronic record drenched in ethereal echo and lots of effects. This is what was hinted at in the Musitron on Del Shannon’s ‘Runaway’ and in the ghostly effects on ‘Johnny Remember Me’, come to full fruition.
It’s a record that tells a story. One of my major complaints whenever an instrumental number one comes along is that, without lyrics, they often struggle to be anything more than a melody looking for a home. There are exceptions to this rule, of course; and none bigger than ‘Telstar’. When the key-change comes and the backing singers join in with the tune you really can picture that car on the dust track in Nebraska, a girl clinging to her boyfriend’s arm, a huge light opening up in the sky above, ready to beam them away…
It’s also a record that is, perhaps more than any other #1 we’ve covered so far, a very specific product of its time. The Telstar Communications Satellite was a real satellite, launched four months before this disc hit the top spot. Barely a year before that, Yuri Gagarin had become the first man in orbit. The space-race had lift-off (pardon the pun) and this record sounds as if it comes from a distant galaxy compared to Elvis, Frank Ifield et al. It was also during ‘Telstar’s five weeks at the top that the world held its breath over the Cuban Missile Crisis, and I can’t think of a better song to put on the gramophone ahead of a nuclear Armageddon.
I mentioned ‘Johnny Remember Me’ and, as many will already know, both it and ‘Telstar’ were products of the bizarrely brilliant mind of producer Joe Meek. But whereas ‘Johnny…’ was the sound of Meek flexing his creative muscles; this disc is his masterpiece. He has one more chart-topper to come so we’ll save the main bio for then (though I could reserve a whole blog post, nay a full-on book, for an overview of his brilliant, troubled and ultimately tragic life.)
The Tornados, on the other hand, only ever had this moment at the top. I have to admit that in doing my research for this post I’ve fallen down something of a Tornados rabbit-hole… They were perhaps better known as the backing band to Billy Fury – an early British rock ‘n’ roller, a cooler version of Cliff, if you will, who never quite made it to the top of the charts. They were also a vehicle for Joe Meek’s experimental flights of fancy, and released a bunch of innovative, funny and outright bizarre records throughout the early to mid-1960s. Check out, for example, ‘Do You Come Here Often?’ – the B-side to their final ever single – in which two men full-on flirt over a loopy lounge-jazz melody. It was released in 1966, when ‘that sort of thing’ was still very much illegal…
However, nothing else they ever recorded came close to matching the success of ‘Telstar’. Not only was it a huge hit in the UK; it was the first ever US #1 by a British group – beating a certain foursome from Liverpool by just over a year. You can hear its influence in, say, prog rock, the electronic acts of the late ‘70s and ‘80s, and in the ‘Dr. Who’ theme. Muse scored a Top 10 hit in 2006 with ‘Knights of Cydonia’, a song which was, how to put this, lovingly influenced by ‘Telstar’. (Muse frontman, Matt Bellamy’s father was actually the guitarist in… wait for it… The Tornados! How ‘bout dat.)
Anyway… Glancing down my list of upcoming chart-toppers, I’m under no allusions that this has been anything other than a wonderfully freak occurrence, rather than a shift in the British musical landscape. But what a freak occurrence. That this song was the 141st UK #1 single should be celebrated long and loud. Press play once more and imagine that it’s you in that car on that dusty desert road. Beam me up…!
Now this is how you make an instrumental rock ‘n’ roll record! At the risk of sounding like a complete pleb, this latest chart-topper is ten-times better than its highly-regarded (but pretty dull) predecessor, The Shadows’ ‘Wonderful Land’.
Nut Rocker, by B. Bumble & The Stingers (their 1st and only #1)
1 week, from 17th – 24th May 1962
Imagine a Buzzfeed listicle entitled ‘23 Things You Never Knew You Needed in Your Life, But Totally Do’. Top-spot on that list would surely go to “the march from TheNutcracker done in a rollicking, boogie-woogie-slash-rock ‘n’ roll style”. And as it so happens – that is exactly what ‘Nut Rocker’, by B. Bumble & The Stingers, is!
This is a bizarre, wacky, completely unexpected record. Coming as it does after pretty sedate efforts from Cliff, The Shadows and Elvis, it sounds like a drunken uncle bundling his way onto the dance-floor at a wedding. And I mean that as a good thing. This is a superb record. I might even go as far as saying that it’s life-affirming. This is why humans were put on the planet – to make songs such as this. This needs to swap places with ‘Wonderful Land’ as the record that spent eight weeks atop the charts.
I don’t actually have much to write about the song itself – I tried to take notes, but ended up just smiling and tapping my feet. Plus, it races to an end in under two minutes. But those two minutes include the following: a stupidly dramatic intro, piano riffs, superb drum fills, and a natty little guitar solo. It is undeniably the march from ‘The Nutcracker’, but it’s so much more than just the march from ‘The Nutcracker’. Listen to that here, then listen to ‘Nut Rocker’ through the link below. It’s pretty special, actually, how they’ve stayed true to the original piece of classical music but added everything you need for a rock ‘n’ roll song. It is a novelty, it is silly; but I wouldn’t call it a piss-take. It’s clearly done with love.
For perhaps the first time in this countdown, I can remember exactly where I was when I first heard this song. I was in the passenger seat of my mum’s car, aged fourteen or so, on a Saturday afternoon in May. We were listening to ‘Pick of the Pops’, a radio show that replays the charts from any given year. That week it was the chart from 1962, and we had been guessing who might have been at the top of the charts – Cliff? Elvis? Roy Orbison? It was a bit too early for The Beatles… When B. Bumble & The Stingers were announced as the #1 we… well, we burst out laughing. In a good way. It’s that kind of record.
The Stingers were very much a flash-in-the-pan kind of act. They had had success with a version of ‘Flight of the Bumblebee’ before ‘Nut Rocker’, and they followed their sole chart-topper up with a version of the William Tell Overture ,‘Apple Knocker’, and ‘Dawn Cracker’ – based on Greig’s ‘Morning Mood’ (they had clearly found their niche). All were done in the same boogie-woogie style, but having had a listen I can confirm that none come close to the genius of this track. ‘Nut Rocker’ really was a case of capturing lightning.
Just in case you somehow remain unconvinced about how good, yet slightly mental, this record is, here are a couple of things to chew on before we finish. One – this song was almost banned by the BBC, as they had a policy of not playing records which parodied classical music. How dare these teddy boy upstarts lampoon proper music! (In the end they let it pass, as even the stuffed-suits in Broadcasting House saw ‘Nut Rocker’ for the heartfelt homage that it clearly was.) Two – and if this doesn’t convince then you are beyond redemption – it means that Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky has a writing-credit on one of the silliest chart-topping records in history. Roll over Beethoven, indeed…