Remembering Alma Cogan

I’ve covered 342 #1 singles since starting this blog. Some have been classics, some have been terrible, some have been by the most famous acts in pop music history, some have been by acts unknown to me until that moment… One of the singers I have been happiest to discover on my journey, is the singer of the 35th UK #1 single, Alma Cogan.

Born in East London in 1932, she went from singer-in-residence at a hotel, to the biggest British female star of the fifties. ‘The Girl with the Giggle in Her Voice’ – a nickname she earned after bursting into laughter during an early recording session – with huge frocks and a healthy pair of lungs – to listen to her early hits is to lose yourself in unpretentious pop perfection. Of which ‘Dreamboat’, her one and only chart-topper, is perhaps the perfect example.

(You can read my original post on it here.) Voted Outstanding British Female Singer by NME readers four times between 1956-1960, she scored hits throughout the decade by covering standards such as ‘Mambo Italiano’ and ‘Why Do Fools Fall in Love?’, ‘Little Things Mean a Lot’ and ‘Hernando’s Hideaway’. Being a popular singer in the fifties and early sixties meant that she also recorded her fair share of novelties – ‘Never Do a Tango with an Eskimo‘ – and showtunes. But she sings them with such a twinkle in her eyes that you forgive even her cheesiest moments. Here she is, belting out ‘As Long as He Needs Me’ from ‘Oliver!’ (Apparently the part of Nancy was written with Cogan in mind, and she does have a fantastic cockney rasp in her voice, compared to other more stage-school actresses who have played the role.)

The swinging sixties killed off her chart-topping days, as they did to many stars of the fifties. But there is a fascinating coda to Alma Cogan’s career – her friendship with The Beatles…

Cogan’s star was waning and the Fab Four’s was on the rise, but they would still meet at the same TV recordings. She was the first person that Paul played ‘Yesterday’ to, and she allegedly had an affair with John. She also tried to relaunch herself back into the charts by covering some of the bands hits – her ‘Eight Days a Week’ is a particular moment of overblown brilliance.

For whatever reason, she couldn’t seem to reignite her singles career – in the UK at least – and died tragically young from cancer in 1966. She was just thirty-four. Which terrifies me, as I am thirty-four and I have neither enjoyed a decade-long singing career nor had an affair with a Beatle… Just what have I done with my life?

Here’s one of Alma Cogan’s later TV performances – a cover of ‘The Tennessee Waltz’ – as introduced by her (supposed) lover John Lennon. They do flirt quite heavily in this clip, I must say…

And if that doesn’t leave with a smile on your face, then I don’t know what medication to recommend…

Alma Cogan, 19th May 1932 – 26th October 1966

258. ‘Hey Jude’, by The Beatles

Buckle up and make yourselves comfortable, cause we’ve hit our longest number one single yet. One of the longest ever. Seven minutes and ten seconds of Beatlesy goodness.

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Hey Jude, by The Beatles (their 15th of seventeen #1s)

2 weeks, from 11th – 25th September 1968

It starts off in beautiful simplicity. Just Paul and a piano. Hey Jude, Don’t make it bad… Take a sad song, And make it better… You’re there, in the studio. You can picture his face as he sings. Remember, To let her into your heart, Then you can start, To make it better…

I love the way the instruments are slowly added into the mix. Before you know it there’s a tambourine, a guitar, then backing vocals and Ringo’s drums. Hey Jude, Don’t be afraid, You were made to, Go out and get her… It sounds like an encouragement to a friend, to go and get the girl he loves, but it was inspired by John’s separation from his first wife Cynthia. Paul wrote it to comfort their son Julian (Julian – Jules – Jude). John, however, claimed that it was about him, and that the song’s lyrics were Paul’s blessing to him and Yoko Ono. Others still – mainly McCartney’s exes – have claimed that it was written about them. Who knows? A great song means something different to everyone.

And this is a great song. I’ve always liked the bridge best: And anytime you feel the pain, Hey Jude, Refrain…  It’s almost, without wanting to sound hopelessly pretentious, spiritual. Pop music as hymn. If I were religious, I’d go to churches where they sang ‘Hey Jude.’ I gave Paul McCartney a hard time in my post on ‘Hello, Goodbye’, and I stand by that, but here… His voice grows ever more soulful. It’s something else – it’s undeniable.

Just over three minutes in we reach the bit that means this record will live on for ever more. When the waves finally lap over the last bit of unsubmerged land left on earth, the final sound man hears will probably be the coda of ‘Hey Jude’. Na-na-na… Nananana! Nananana… Hey Jude! It lives on at karaoke nights, in pubs, outside pubs, in football stadiums… And you can see why. It isn’t hard to remember some ‘nananana’s. Whatever language you speak. Nananana.

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(‘Hey Jude’ was the 1st single released on The Beatles’ own Apple Label)

I had forgotten – having not actually listened to ‘Hey Jude’ properly for years, how crazy Paul goes over the coda. He riffs, he scats, he howls and yells. By the end he sounds as if he’s properly lost it. This was recorded at a particularly difficult time in The Beatles’ history: John spending all his time with Yoko, Ringo temporarily leaving the band… Maybe he was just letting some frustrations out.

The song starts to fade a full minute and a half before it actually ends. Does it really need to be over seven minutes long? Probably not. But at the same time: why the hell not? By this point in their careers, The Beatles could do whatever they wanted. ‘Hey Jude’ is a full two minutes forty seconds longer than the previous ‘Longest #1 Single’ title-holder, The Animal’s ‘The House of the Rising Sun’. You could play the shortest #1 – Adam Faith’s ‘What Do You Want’ – almost five times before ‘Hey Jude’ plays once. As far as I’m aware, it is still the 4th longest #1 single ever, and won’t be displaced as the longest until 1998, when Oasis will release their cover version… sorry, their completely different song… ‘All Around the World.’

And so we reach the end, finally, as the nananas fade and we are left to return to everyday life. ‘Hey Jude’ is a song that has entered the fabric of British life, of our national identity even… Paul McCartney plays it at most of his concerts, as a tribute to his long-dead song writing partner. It’s only right that it hit number one, but it seems wrong that it stayed at the top for just a fortnight. In the US it tied for the longest-ever run, at nine-weeks. That seems more appropriate. A long old run in pole position, for a long old song… Na-na-na-na!

Listen to all the previous, much shorter, #1 singles here:

222. ‘Eleanor Rigby’ / ‘Yellow Submarine’, by The Beatles

In my intro to The Beatles’ last #1 – ‘Paperback Writer’ – I said that it was a definitive split away from ‘The Fab Four’. This latest chart-topper from the group, then, is an even greater stride away from the mop-top days.

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Eleanor Rigby / Yellow Submarine, by The Beatles (their 11th of seventeen #1s)

4 weeks, from 18th August – 15th September 1966

The first side of this double-‘A’ disc contains a song that features no guitars, no drums, no nothing apart from strings. It’s a story about two people: Eleanor Rigby, who lives in a dream and wears a face kept in a jar by the door, and Father McKenzie, who writes sermons that nobody will hear and who spends his nights darning socks… We are a million miles away from ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’, and that was barely two and a half years ago!

It’s a horribly sad song. Just start with the main refrain: Ah, look at all the lonely people! Then delve into the details. The images. Eleanor sweeping confetti from the floor of a church, after a joyful wedding party has been and gone. The priest and his socks. Eleanor’s funeral, at the end of which Father McKenzie wipes the dirt from his hands and walks back to church alone. No-one was saved…

The characters are fictional, although Paul McCartney has at times been ambiguous when asked about them. The grave of an Eleanor Rigby exists in Liverpool, very near to where Paul and John first met as teenagers. She died in 1939, aged just forty-four, and it does seem slightly too much of a coincidence. But then again, if you were going to invent a fictional old woman’s name, Eleanor Rigby wouldn’t be a bad shout.

Real or invented, Eleanor’s song races along on tight, menacing violins – the story told in barely two minutes. It’s a vignette, a moment in time. You can imagine Paul McCartney viewing the churchyard from the window of a double-decker bus, Eleanor sweeping the church steps, Father McKenzie waiting for the congregation that will never come, and then going home to write the song. Just what is it about? A study in loneliness? The decline of Christianity? A comment on the misery of post-war Britain? The more you listen to it, the more important ‘Eleanor Rigby’ sounds. And the less like a chart-topping record. Only The Beatles could have taken this song to chart success. Largely because only The Beatles were capable of writing pop songs like this.

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They were also the only band capable of writing songs like the one on the other side of this disc. We flip the record, and move from the sublime into the ridiculous. As if they thought that ‘Eleanor Rigby’ might be too much of a departure, too avant-garde, and so wanted something childishly reassuring to go along with it. But, in its own way, ‘Yellow Submarine’ is every bit as arresting…

Let me state right here right now – it is impossible to truly hate ‘Yellow Submarine’. It might be irritating, cheesy and pointless… but there’s a loveable nugget buried in there. Perhaps it’s because ‘Yellow Submarine’ is often the first Beatles song people ever hear as toddlers. I think also, for me, it’s the fact that Ringo sings it. There’s something wonderfully soothing about Ringo’s voice. It’s got a melancholy tremble that contrasts nicely with the song’s stupidly optimistic lyrics. Plus, his voice always reminds me of ‘Thomas the Tank Engine’, which was my favourite TV show as a sprog.

In the town, Where I was born, Lived a man, Who sailed to sea… Ringo and chums sail out to find the land of submarines. They live a life of ease, beneath the waves… The end. It’s a complete novelty. The silliest, most childlike chart-topper since ‘(How Much Is) That Doggie in the Window’ from way back when. To pair this with ‘Eleanor Rigby’ reminds me of when Elvis paired ‘Can’t Help Falling in Love’ with ‘Rock-a-Hula Baby’, times ten.

But hey. I like the bit where the band begins to play, and the use of goofy sound effects as the sub gets its journey underway, and the final verse, with the shouted, distorted backing vocals. The band must have enjoyed recording it, as they went and endorsed a whole movie based on the song. The cartoon ‘Yellow Submarine’ is probably one of the iconic Beatles images, along with Sgt Peppers and the EMI stairwell pictures.

Of course, this being The Beatles, the lyrics to ‘Yellow Submarine’ have undergone intense scrutiny. Just what is it about, man? Is it an anti-war statement (Yellow Nuclear Submarine?) Is it an ode to a hippy commune? The band themselves, as they usually did, stated that it was just a children’s song about a big, yellow submarine. Nothing more, nothing less.

So, there you have it. Two completely bizarre songs from the biggest band in history, at the height of their powers. There’s an arrogance to them releasing this disc – in them saying to their adoring public: ‘Here, get your pretty little heads around this!’ And it marks the start of a mini-hiatus from the top of the charts for The Beatles. Their next release, another very famous double-‘A’ side, will (gasp!) not make #1, and we won’t hear from them until almost a whole year has passed. By which time they will have taken another supersonic leap forward…

Follow along here:

217. ‘Paperback Writer’, by The Beatles

If you can draw a line in the sand, between early-era Beatles #1s and late-era Beatles #1s – if you really want to locate the moment when they stopped being ‘The Fab Four’ – then I’d say this is it.

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Paperback Writer, by The Beatles (their 10th of seventeen #1s)

2 weeks, from 23rd June – 7th July 1966

There’s the echoey, layered intro – Paperback writer, writer, writer… A simple, harder than anything that’s gone before, riff. A filthy bassline. It’s not a clean line in the sand – it’s not as if The Beatles hadn’t been getting progressively heavier, cooler, druggier with every chart-topper since ‘I Feel Fine’ – but this does feel like a significant step away from their earlier days. 1966 would be the year of ‘Revolver’ and their last ever stadium concerts.

The biggest difference though, for me, comes in the lyrics. All their previous #1s have been boy-meets-girl, girl treats boy well or badly, pop songs (with the exception of ‘Help!’) ‘Paperback Writer’, however, is a song about a, well, a paperback writer, written by Paul McCartney after he was challenged to write a song about anything but ‘love’.

Dear sir or madam, Will you read my book, It took me years to write, Will you take a look…? It’s a song in the form of a letter – our very first epistolary chart topper? – from a wannabe pulp-fiction writer, presumably living in a cramped attic, to some unnamed publishers. It doesn’t, to be honest, sound like a very appealing read: a dirty story of a dirty man (whose) clinging wife doesn’t understand… And the unnamed writer doesn’t sound like much of an artiste: I need a job and so I wanna be a paperback writer…

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It’s actually quite a funny record, satirical even. The hero of this trashy story also wants to be a paperback writer, while the book is already a thousand pages long, with more to come in a week… In the background, the other members of the band harmonise, in falsettos, over the French nursery rhyme ‘Frere Jacques’.

It’s also a short record, just over two minutes long, which sounds loveably rough and ready, as if it were knocked out in one take over a single afternoon. And that’s not a bad thing. It’s probably The Beatles’ heaviest chart-topper, and a song that’s always felt like a bit of an anomaly in their discography. Although, if you think the lyrics to ‘Paperback Writer’ are a big change of pace, their next #1 will be about an old woman who cleans churches…

Before we finish, let’s just pause to notice that the past three chart-toppers have gone The Rolling StonesFrank Sinatra – The Beatles… has there ever been a more illustrious run of #1s?

209. ‘Michelle’, by The Overlanders

For those counting, we arrive at the 3rd Beatles cover to top the UK charts. Which means that in a little under three years, Lennon & McCartney have been responsible for twelve chart-toppers! Not bad, not bad at all. A couple of posts ago I mentioned them in comparison with Bacharach and David, who recently wrote The Walker Brothers #1 ‘Make It Easy on Yourself’. But, having done some digging, it turns out that they were still way behind John and Paul with just 6 chart-topping compositions to their name, in well over double the time.

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Michelle, by The Overlanders (their 1st and only #1)

3 weeks, from 27th January – 17th February 1966

Anyway, that’s all well and good; but this next chart-topper isn’t by The Beatles. Note the name at the start of this post: The Overlanders. You know, the British folk-rock-cum-pop combo? Nope? Well this was their one and only hit. And it’s a pretty faithful, note for note, cover of the original.

I’d like to write about this without comparing it to The Beatles’ version, but that would mean erasing a song that I’ve been listening to since I was a kid from my memory for the next half an hour. And I don’t have the technology to do that… Michelle, Ma belle, These are words that go together well, My Michelle… Alongside a jaunty, perky, French-salon tune. It’s slightly heavier, more deliberate version – the instruments and the vocals have a deeper finish and a gloss that the original doesn’t. The Beatles’ version is more subtle, lighter… (Oh fine, here’s a link. Compare them for yourself.)

Probably the most notable thing about this disc is that it has a full line of French in it, which is a first for a UK chart-topper. Michelle, Ma Belle, Son les mots qui vent très bien ensemble, Tres bien ensemble… Even if, like me, you have only the most basic of French abilities, you can work out that it’s just a direct translation of the preceding, English line. Still, aside from ‘Que Sera Sera’, which is actually gibberish, this is the first in a long line of ‘non-English’ #1s, or ‘not-completely-English #1s’, which will take us through ‘Je T’Aime…’ to ‘La Isla Bonita’, to, um, ‘Gangnam Style’…

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As a hit record, this is alright. It might as well have been done by a pub covers band for all the personality they bring to it, but it’s OK. It’s not as good as the original, you’d never choose to listen to this version over it, but the only bit I think that really lets The Overlanders down is the creaky I love you… before the solo.

What it kind of reminds me of is the electronic keyboard that I had as a kid, for the six months or so I attempted to learn, which had a bunch of famous songs pre-programmed into it. ‘Michelle’ wasn’t one of them; but if it had been I bet it would have sounded quite like this. Perhaps the problem is that, unlike the previous two Lennon & McCartney written chart-toppers, everyone thinks of ‘Michelle’ as a Beatles song. It’s a well- known track from one of their best-regarded albums, ‘Rubber Soul’, and features on several Greatest Hits compilations (which is where I first heard it all those years ago.) Whereas, Billy J. Kramer, and Peter and Gordon, could more easily pass ‘Bad to Me’ and ‘A World Without Love’ off as their own, with no ‘official’ version of those hits ever recorded by The Fab Four, The Overlanders wouldn’t be as lucky.

But then again, if you wanted a guaranteed hit in the mid-sixties, you couldn’t do any better than nabbing yourself a Beatles’ cast-off. They got their big smash; but very few people remember them for it. Like I wrote at the start, this was The Overlanders’ one and only hit record. It raises a philosophical question to finish on: What’s better, plugging away valiantly on your own with little recognition, or riding the coattails of the world’s biggest band for three weeks of reflected glory?

167. ‘A World Without Love’, by Peter & Gordon

With Beatlemania at its scream-until-you-vomit height, it should come as no surprise to learn that one Fab Four song is replacing another at the top of the charts. Except, one glance at the act involved in this latest #1 gives the game away… There was neither a Peter nor a Gordon in The Beatles.

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A World Without Love, by Peter & Gordon (their 1st and only #1)

2 weeks, from 23rd April – 7th May 1964

For those keeping track, this is the 6th Lennon & McCartney composition to take the top spot in the UK: four recorded by The Beatles themselves; two covered by other artists. But even if you hadn’t been filled in beforehand, the second the needle drops on ‘A World Without Love’ you know it’s a L&M number.

Is it the chord progressions? The harmonies? The fact it’s a catchy song with a sad underbelly? Is it all those things; or none? I can’t put my finger on it – but it’s there throughout the song. That Lennon & McCartney fairy dust. At the same time, though, this disc doesn’t sound exactly like a Beatles’ number. They were still, at this point, a guitars and drums pop group; while this record is driven by a bass riff and an organ.

The voices are different too – softer, more Everly Brothers than Beatles. They’re nice, drenched in echo… Please, lock me away… And don’t allow the day… Here inside, Where I hide, With my loneliness… It’s a song about how awful the world looks after a break-up. And this particular break-up must have hit pretty darn hard… Birds sing out of tune, And rainclouds hide the moon… By the end, the duo are begging to be locked away, hidden from all, rather than staying in a world without love.

I’ve mentioned it before, but it is surprising just how melancholy and melodramatic some of these Beat #1s were. You think it’s all youthful exuberance and ‘Yeah Yeah Yeahs’, but when you sit down and listen intently you notice that songs like ‘Bad to Me’, ‘She Loves You’ and ‘Needles and Pins’ are more concerned with the downsides of love, and that it’s not all sweetness and light. Apparently this song was written by Paul McCartney aged just sixteen, and that makes complete sense. That line about ‘hiding with his loneliness’ is pure teen-angst; while the bridge – in which it is revealed that the singer still holds out hope of his beloved returning to him – is pure youthful optimism. Although the line When she does (come back) I lose… adds an ambiguous element into the mix. Does he want her to come back? Or is he enjoying his gloomy wallow a little too much?

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Peter Asher and Gordon Waller were school friends, and ‘A World Without Love’ was their debut hit. Asher was the brother of Paul McCartney’s girlfriend, Jane, and actually shared a room with Paul when he first moved to London, hence how he got to know him and was allowed to ‘borrow’ one of his songs. All the duo’s biggest hits were covers – ‘True Love Ways’ and a version of ‘To Know Him Is To Love Him’ followed – before, as with so many of the bands that broke through in the Beat explosion, their careers crumbled circa 1966/67.

McCartney was honest enough to admit that he thought ‘A World Without Love’ wasn’t good enough for his own band, and so they never recorded so much as a demo of it. I think that’s a little harsh – it’s a neat slice of pop that’s the equal of many Beatles’ album tracks. But I also get what he means. Nothing here matches the euphoric rush of ‘She Loves You’ or the guitar on ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’. They may have had cute hairstyles and cheeky grins, but The Beatles, and Lennon & McCartney in particular, knew what they were doing, taking control of their careers from the off.