Recap: #31 – #60

And so, we should take a moment, I suppose, to pause and recap. To breathe. We’re sixty number ones in by now, and well into the rock ‘n’ roll era.

One thing we should note is that the first thirty #1s came over the course of two years and five months; while the most recent thirty have all come in just under two years. The turnover of number one singles is speeding up slightly. More change at the top of the charts, I suspect – rightly or wrongly – is a symptom of younger people buying records. Younger people want new things, go off older things quickly, and want their fingers on the pulse of what’s cool and hip and happening. Older people don’t mind being the last to discover a song, one that’s already been out for months.

And going by the most recent run of #1 singles, as I mentioned in my last post, the kids are finally shaping what tops the charts. Gone are the days when Vera Lynn and David Whitfield were getting there (and staying there for weeks and weeks on end) causing you to wonder if anybody under fifty was actually listening to music.

The last thirty records have certainly been a mixed lot – a lot more mixed than the thirty that preceded them… ‘eclectic’ would be the word I’d choose if pressed. We’ve veered from mambos, to tangoes; from Country ballads to film scores (lots of film scores, actually); from the birth of the teenager to the first whiff of doo-wop; from big band through to a healthy dollop of rock ‘n’ roll. I’ve also enjoyed listening to this thirty much more than I did the previous.

All of which means I’m finding it hard to find a way into this recap… Maybe this will be the way as we mine through chart history. Sometimes you’ll strike a seam and one particular style of music will gush forth: Pre-Rock in the early fifties, Merseybeat in the mid-sixties, Disco in the late seventies and Bubblegum Pop in the late nineties. But that’s pure speculation. There is, however, a definite feeling that the shackles are off, that people want a bit of zip and swagger in their music, and that not everything needs to be taken super seriously. The long-awaited demise of the THIS IS THE END OF THE SONG!!! style of concluding a hit single is perhaps the most telling indicator of this. Artists are free to fade, to cut it short… to just stop their songs without signposting it from a mile off!

And so the handful of old-fashioned songs that have still made it to the top of the charts recently have really stood out as relics. ‘No Other Love’ by Ronnie Hilton, Dickie Valentine’s ‘Christmas Alphabet’ and Jimmy Young’s version of ‘Unchained Melody’ all fall into this category. Even Doris Day’s ‘Que Sera Sera’ sounded a bit naff, though it’s an undeniable classic.

Then there have been the songs – ballads the lot of them – that have combined the old-fashioned, earnest, lovelorn approach with a hint, the merest whiff, of rock ‘n’ roll. Tab Hunter’s ‘Young Love’, Pat Boone’s ‘I’ll Be Home’ and, worst of all, ‘It’s Almost Tomorrow’ by The Dream Weavers. It is to this latter disc that I bestow the honour of this recap’s ‘Meh’ Award, for being the most forgettable of the last thirty.

I also must choose a ‘WTAF’ Award winner – for the record that comes out of nowhere and smacks you around the chops with its weirdness. I did briefly consider Kay Starr’s ‘Rock and Roll Waltz’, for it’s odd juxtaposition of rock ‘n’ roll lyrics to a, well, waltz. But I quite liked that – it was cute. No, there can only be one winner this time… Take a bow, Anne Shelton for your military-march rendition of ‘Lay Down Your Arms’, performed with all the grace and subtlety of a middle-aged aunt at half past Hogmanay (not that that’s necessarily a bad thing, but still.)

Before we get onto the best and the worst, mention should be made of the fact that even British stars are now rock and rolling with the best of them. In the previous recap I pointed out that all the fun, all the flirty and saucy, the cool and the catchy records were by Americans while the staid and stuffy ones were by the Brits. Well, what with Tommy Steele, Lonnie Donegan and Alma Cogan, the Brits have well and truly caught up, if not taken over. Which fills you with pride, don’t it? Men aren’t hanging around all doe-eyed either – a la Eddie Fisher and David Whitfield – pining for their lost loves no more.

OK, so. The Worst. It’s hard, this time. There really haven’t been that many terrible records. In the first recap I could have gladly chosen five! Let’s see… there was Eddie Calvert’s repressed rendition of ‘Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White’, which paled horrifically in comparison to Perez Prado’s cover (which will feature in my ‘Best Of’ very soon, don’t worry). There was Jimmy Young’s equally repressed version of ‘Unchained Melody’ too. But these two records are saved by the fact that they are, at heart, good songs. Given better treatment they can scrub up into something wonderful. Nope: the worst of chart-toppers 31 through 60 is… ‘The Man From Laramie’, again by Jimmy Young (sorry Jimmy, I’m clearly still not over those long childhood car-journeys) for being stiff, cheesy and, worst of all, unconvincing. That it was a hit single at all seems strange; that it was a month-long number one seems bizarre.

And the best…? Honourable mentions for the seminal ‘Rock Around the Clock’, the swaying ‘A Woman in Love’, for the sherbet-dib-dab-in-pop-song-form that was ‘Rock-A-Billy’ and the tortured rasp of ‘Just Walkin’ in the Rain’. But my top three are – and Goddam it’s been hard to separate them – ‘Dreamboat’, by Alma Cogan, ‘Why Do Fools Fall in Love’, by Frankie Lymon & The Teenagers and ‘Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White’ by Perez ‘Prez’ Prado and His Orchestra. ‘Dreamboat’ and ‘Why Do Fools…’ are perfect expressions of the perfect pop song BUT I was very familiar with both songs prior to starting this blog. I was aware of their brilliance; they didn’t take me by surprise. So… the award must go to ‘Prez’ Prado, for waking the UK up in the spring of ’55 and recording by far the sexiest record we’ve heard yet. Huh! Hah! Ooh!

In case you’ve lost track, these are our award winners thus far:

The ‘Meh’ Award for Forgetability: 1. ‘Hold My Hand’, by Don Cornell. 2. ‘It’s Almost Tomorrow’, by The Dream Weavers.

The ‘WTAF’ Award for Being Interesting if Nothing Else: 1. ‘I See the Moon’, by The Stargazers. 2. ‘Lay Down Your Arms’, by Anne Shelton.

The Very Worst Chart-Toppers: 1. ‘Cara Mia’, by David Whitfield with Mantovani & His Orchestra. 2. ‘The Man From Laramie’, by Jimmy Young.

The Very Best Chart-Toppers: 1. ‘Such a Night’, by Johnnie Ray. 2. ‘Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White’, by Perez ‘Prez’ Prado & His Orchestra.

I did think that my favourite might have come from that burst of rock ‘n’ roll which characterised the tail-end of the last thirty number ones but, while I love the style of the music, none of them have been utter, outright classics. They’ve all been of a particular style of rock ‘n’ where the voice and lyrics are everything and the other elements that contribute so much to what rock ‘n’ roll is (the drums, the guitar, the attitude) are dialled way back. That will change, I’m sure, as we delve deeper into this first era of rock.

On with the show…

Recap: #1 – #30

A quick recap, as we hit thirty. Thirty number ones in a little under two and a half years. The prehistoric chart toppers.

Perhaps the most impressive thing about these super old #1s has been that very few of them have sounded terrible to my 21st Century ears. With the notable exceptions of David Whitfield (sorry David, but nope) and Vera Lynn (who already was from another era), they haven’t sounded too old-fashioned.

Whether I’d want to listen to that many of them ever again is another matter, however. Our very first chart-topper was the bombastic and ever-so earnest ‘Here in My Heart’, and it kind of set the template for a lot of what followed. Frankie Laine, Eddie Fisher and Tennessee Ernie Ford have spent the best part of a year at the top, in total, with overwrought and slightly silly sounding declarations of love and faithfulness. Even swingin’ Sinatra was guilty with his dull first number one ‘Three Coins in the Fountain’. Still, you have to admire their honesty. They were putting it all out there – hearts on sleeves.

It has actually been the ladies who have brought the glamour and, dare we say, the sexiness to the party. Jo Stafford, Kay Starr and Kitty Kallen all hit the top with fun, laidback slithers of fifties jazz-pop. Recently, Rosemary Clooney has taken it to another level with her breezy giggle and girl-band fervour on ‘This Ole House’ and ‘Mambo Italiano’.

And then there have been the anomalies (for what would a record chart be without those songs that make you go ‘What the actual…?’) Stand up and take a bow ‘I See the Moon’, by the Stargazers, for taking the newly conceived, first time ever, ‘WTAF’ prize.

I’m also going to christen an award for the most forgettable of the past 30 chart toppers – the not terrible but not great – the tracks that I’ve already forgotten existed… The ‘Meh’ Award. Honourable mentions for ‘Softly, Softly’ by Ruby Murray, and ‘Give Me Your Word’, the two most recent number ones, but… Take a bow, Don Cornell, with your perfectly average ‘Hold My Hand’. It really was a… Well, I’ve forgotten what it was. Which is why it won.

I’ve also made a lot of the difference so far between the UK recorded hits and those by US artists. And this is perhaps the most obvious, socio-economic, ‘lets get serious for a minute here’ point to be made from looking at the ‘pre-rock’ charts. That the US stars just had that extra level of glamour, of confidence, of razzmatazz, compared to the stuffier and more staid UK stars. And, yep, in the early ’50s the US was the daddy. Relatively undamaged by war (casualties aside), economy booming, disposable income growing; while Brits were still queuing for butter and nylons, and living in prefab houses. This clearly comes through in the records we’ve heard: compare and contrast Guy Mitchell’s swagger with David Whitfield’s clipped, repressed delivery; compare even the most basic, 1954-by-numbers song from Doris Day with old Vera Lynn (sorry to keep picking on you, Vera…) But, as I noted recently, by early ’55 things were starting to shift: Dickie Valentine and Ruby Murray were two young British singers who hit the top while sounding like Americans.

Anyway, I’ll conclude each of these round-ups by choosing the very best and very worst of the past 30 so…

Let’s start with the worst. I’ve given Vera Lynn a hard enough time, so I won’t choose ‘My Son, My Son’. And the Stargazers first number one ‘Broken Wings’ was pretty morose, but in some ways it was shit in a specifically British way – all Hammond organs and posh vocals – that it was kind of endearing. Nope, the first award for ‘Worst #1’ goes to… ‘Cara Mia’ by David Whitfield and Mantovani’s orchestra, for dragging popular music back to the 1890s. 10 weeks at the top isn’t any sort of vindication, either.

Let’s end on a high, though. The best ones – and there are more good #1s to choose from than there are terrible #1s, believe it or not. Honourable mentions for Perry Como and his ‘papayas’, for ‘I Believe’ as the record-setting juggernaut that it was… But my top 3 are: ‘Mambo Italiano’, by Rosemary Clooney’, for perfectly straddling the line between cool and crazy. ‘Look at that Girl’ by Guy Mitchell, for being the most perfectly conceived pop song that we’ve heard so far (these are ‘pop’ charts after all). And the winner is, the best chart topper from this bunch of early, early hits… *fanfare*… ‘Such a Night’, by Johnnie Ray, for being two minutes of SEX on vinyl (gay sex, no less), and for all the pearls that would have been clutched by concerned mothers when their sons and daughters dropped that record onto their turntables. Here’s to more of that sort of thing in the next 30 UK #1s!

On with the show…