And so on to one of the decade’s biggest voices, with her poppiest moment…
I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me), by Whitney Houston (her 2nd of four #1s)
2 weeks, from 31st May – 14th June 1987
Her poppiest #1, at least. ‘Saving All My Love for You’ was slinky jazz, and the following two are Whitney Ballads™. Here, though, she sings like the young woman she was, and sounds like she’s having one hell of a time.
Clock strikes upon the hour, And the sun begins to fade… It’s girly-pop 101: the need to dance with somebody, anybody, as long as they love you; from ‘Dancing Queen’ to ‘Just Dance’. It’s slightly contradictory, she is looking for an anonymous encounter with someone who already loves her… A man who’ll take a chance, On a love that burns hot enough to last… but really, who’s looking for lyrical depth?
This is cheese. The lyrics, the castanet flourishes between lines, the strident synth chords before each chorus, and a peach of a key-change. But, there are levels of cheese. And there are two things that save this from being cheesy pop of the Stock-Aitken-Waterman variety. The first is that it’s being sung by Whitney Houston. SAW never had a singer of her capabilities (sorry, Kylie). Check out the way she breathes the ‘falls’ then belts the ‘calls’ in the When the night falls, My lonely heart calls… line. While Sonia ain’t never hit notes like Whitney does in the fade-out. The usual complaints about her over-singing don’t apply here either: it’s much harder to over-sing a bubbly pop tune like this. And even if you do, people are less likely to notice.
The second is that, under all the cheese, the production has quite an edge to it. The squelchy bass in the intro is fun, and the middle-eight breakdown especially has a Prince-like funk to it. It’s worth contrasting the ‘cool’ production on an American hit like this, with the most recent British equivalent, ‘Respectable’. As much as I did enjoy it, and I know it sounds like I’m picking on SAW here, there is a big difference in quality…
Critics picked up on ‘I Wanna Dance with Somebody’s similarity to Houston’s own ‘How Will I Know?’, and Cyndi Lauper’s ‘Girls Just Wanna Have Fun’, similarities which are there for all to hear, but they didn’t stop it from being a worldwide smash. And, in the UK at least, it marks a significant milestone: the first single issued on CD. The future is rapidly approaching…
And as fun as this song is, it’s skirting very close with being overplayed to oblivion. At hen-parties and ‘80s nights you can safely bet your house on hearing it. I’d suggest it be retired for a decade or so, in order to preserve what is one of the most enjoyable moments, for me at least, in Whitney’s discography.
I’m a fan of sweeping statements regarding where and when we are in popular music history, so here’s another one: ‘Respectable’, by Mel and Kim is an era-defining record.
Respectable, by Mel & Kim (their 1st and only #1)
1 week, from 22nd – 29th March 1987
Tay-tay-tay-tay-tay-t-t-t-t-tay-tay, Take or leave us… The hook that runs through this hi-NRG, trash-pop hit is jarring. It’s obnoxious, confrontational, and completely intentional – designed to be played at ear-splitting volume by thirteen year old girls across the country, as their parents bang angrily on the walls. Whether or not you can, forgive me, take or leave this song is a good indicator of how much, or how little, you’ll enjoy this blog for the next few months…
For me personally…? When I first listened to it a few days ago, I enjoyed its in-your-face brassiness. When it comes to pop, for me, the trashier and more disposable the better. In the few days since, though, I’ve caught a cold and, let me tell you, ‘Respectable’s pounding beat and constant, jabbing synths wear thinner when you’ve got a stuffy nose and a high temperature. (And if you think the single edit is jarring, try the six-minute extended mix…)
But it’s the sound of the future, both immediate and a little further off. Immediate, because it was produced by Stock-Aitken-Waterman, whose blend of hi-NRG, disco and Europop will be the sound of the late-eighties. They’ve already had one #1: Dead or Alive’s ‘You Spin Me Round’, which is probably their best, and between March ’87 and January 1990 they will score a whopping twelve more!
In terms of a further-off future, ‘Respectable’s lyrics put me in mind of a certain girl group still a decade hence. Take or leave us, Only please believe us, We ain’t never gonna be respectable… Like us, Hate us, But you’ll never change us… They don’t care if you think they’re out of line, they’re just out for a good time. Again, these are simple sentiments aimed at tweens, rather than a new feminist manifesto, but when the Spice Girls did it there were theses published on ‘Girl Power’.
Mel and Kim were sisters, and this was their second of four Top 10 hits. They would presumably have had a few more, but tragically Mel died aged just twenty-three in 1990. The cancer that would kill her had been re-diagnosed shortly after ‘Respectable’ made #1. Kim went solo after that, and scored a handful of hits in the early nineties.
A very heavy footnote, then, to what has been one of the lightest number ones for quite some time. It’s tunes like this which have me thinking that, while nobody is claiming the late-eighties to be a classic era for pop music, I will enjoy it more than the decade’s soft and gloopy middle years…
Yesterday I ranked the songs that didn’t quite make my Top 10 of ABBA’s non-#1s. Here, then, is the main event…
10. ‘Does Your Mother Know’ – reached #4 in 1979
The only ABBA hit on which one of the boys took lead vocals, and their final glam-rock stomper. The lyrics are very of their time BUT, crucially, Bjorn acts like a true gentleman towards this teenage tearaway. Take it easy… Does your mother know? You can picture him helping the girl out the club, giving her a bottle of water, and waiting with her until the Uber arrives.
9. ‘Under Attack’ – reached #26 in 1982
One that benefits from not being over-played… This was the last single released before the band split up in December 1982. Sadly it didn’t help them go out with a bang, and limped to a Top 30 peak over Christmas. I love it though: it keeps the moodiness from ‘The Visitors’ album in the verses before dishing out a classic ABBA chorus. Never has a line like: Under attack, I’m being taken… sounded so positive.
8. ‘Don’t Shut Me Down’ / ‘I Still Have Faith in You’ – reached #9 / # 14 in 2021
The comeback hits. One of which, astonishingly, restored ABBA to the Top 10 for the first time in forty years. I’m treating them as a double-‘A’, as in days gone by that’s presumably what they would have been released as. I don’t really know where to place them, how to assess them with regards to the rest of their output yet, so have plonked them right in the middle. One things for sure: both songs hold their own with those from decades before. ‘Don’t Shut Me Down’, to my ears, combines ‘Dancing Queen’ and ‘One of Us’, two of the band’s best. ‘I Still Have Faith in You’ I found a little underwhelming on first listen, but in time it’s grown into an epic that could only have been created by one band.
7. ‘Head Over Heels’ – reached #25 in 1982
The single that broke their run of 18 uninterrupted Top 10 hits… But I think it’s a mini-classic. It’s ABBA at their frothiest, and is definitely the lightest moment on ‘The Visitors’ album. It helps that you rarely hear it these days – perhaps if it was as played as ‘Dancing Queen’ I’d be ranking it lower. The video, in which Frida plays a messy It girl, is cheap and cheerful, but Good God those jumpsuits! She’s extreme, If you know, What I mean…
6. ‘Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight)’ – reached #3 in 1979
Until their re-evaluation in the ’90s, the ABBA flame was kept alight in gay bars. Most claim ‘Dancing Queen’ to be their gay anthem, for obvious reasons, but surely they were never gayer than when Frida and Agnetha were demanding a man after midnight. Those exclamation marks after each ‘Gimme’ in the title are everything, as is the pounding, horse-hoof beat, that sounds as close as disco ever came to splicing with a spaghetti-western soundtrack. It was later sampled by Madonna for one of her best songs, however I can’t listen to it now without hearing it sung in the style of Kathy Burke.
5. ‘SOS’ – reached #6 in 1975
I’ve heard this referred to as ABBA’s heavy-metal moment, ABBA’s emo moment, ABBA’s finest moment… I’d say it’s simply pure power-pop perfection. ‘SOS’ was their first big post-‘Waterloo’ hit, and it set them up for half a decade of chart domination. Even this early in their career, with both couples still happily together, ABBA’s melodies and hooks were underscored by melancholy. Even Pierce Brosnan couldn’t ruin this one…
4. ‘The Day Before You Came’ – reached #32 in 1982
Just what is this record about…? Is it the day before meeting the man of your dreams? Is it the day before your death? Your murder? Suicide?? A biting satire on the meat-grinder that capitalism throws us through in the name of a career…? Whatever it might be about, this six-minute, chorus-less epic is probably the most experimental moment of ABBA’s career. The hits were drying up, so why bother trying to write a hit? It was also the very last song they ever recorded (until the comeback). Legend has it that Agnetha recorded her vocals alone, in a darkened recording studio, before walking out and drawing ABBA to a close. Those vocals contain some of the band’s best lines, picking out the mundanity of this woman’s life. I must have lit my seventh cigarette at half past two… and There’s not, I think, a single episode of ‘Dallas’ that I didn’t see… She isn’t at all sure of what happened that day, really; a very unreliable narrator. You could write a dissertation on the many way this song can be interpreted. Who know, someone might already have. Strange, sinister perfection.
3. ‘Voulez-Vous’ / ‘Angeleyes’ – reached #3 in 1979
Apart, neither ‘Voulez-Vous’ nor ‘Angeleyes’ would get this high… As a double-‘A’ side, though, their combined forces get third place. (And, without giving the game away, the highest-placing of ABBA’s ’70s hits…) Both songs are disco heaven, and both are about a sleaze-ball of a man. The same sleaze-ball? In ‘Angeleyes’ the girls want to warn his new lover not to trust him, to warn her away… While in ‘Voulez-Vous’, in the heat of the dance floor, they give in and ask him bluntly: Voulez-vous? Take it now or leave it…
2. ‘Lay All Your Love on Me’ – reached #7 in 1981
In which ABBA move from disco, into electronic dance. The bass slaps (I believe that’s the term), the beat is unrepentant, and the lyrics are classic ABBA (how many dance tracks have words like ‘incomprehensible’ in them…?) My favourite bits are the violins that come in at the end, and the synthesised drops before the choruses, but really it’s all great. This was never intended to be a single, and when it was released it was only put out on 12″, which explains the relatively low peak. Though it was, at the time, the best selling 12″ record ever.
1. ‘One of Us’ – reached #3 in 1981
The first song the band released as two divorced couples; and the last genuine hit single they had. A coincidence…? It has everything you want from an ABBA single: singing through the tears, glorious harmonising from the girls, just the right number of cheesy touches (the parping bass, for example). I’m not sure it’s their best song, but something about it just hits a sweet spot – the Wishing she was somewhere else instead… line is perfection – and so it gives me great pleasure to name ‘One of Us’ as the best of ABBA’s rest.
I do like it when we get to a song I’ve never heard before. ‘Yellow River’ does not ring a bell, and I even had to check whether Christie was male, female, or band. (They’re a band.)
Yellow River, by Christie (their 1st and only #1)
1 week, from 31st May – 7th June 1970
There’s been a bit of a country-rock feel to the top of the charts over the past year or so. CCR, Bobbie Gentry, The Stones went to a Honky Tonk and The Beatles even got in on it the act with ‘Get Back’. And of course Lee Marvin was a-wanderin’ under the stars…
Lyrically, ‘Yellow River’ treads the same path (gettit?) as ‘Wandr’in’ Star’. The singer has been at war, but he’s now packing up and heading out. Put my gun down, The war is won, Fill my glass high the time has come, I’m goin’ back to the place that I love, Yellow River… while an insistent, chugging rhythm carries us along. Yellow River is the place he loves, and there’s a girl there waiting for him because, well, there has to be a girl waiting in a song like this.
It’s melancholy, but it’s also catchy. I’m tapping my feet as I write and I can’t help it. It’s growing on me. At first I wrote it off as inoffensive and a tad lightweight, but there’s something there. I especially like the yearning in the bridge: Got no time for explanations, Got no time to lose, Tomorrow night you’ll find me sleepin’ underneath the moon…
I also like the yee-hah! guitars that drag us along, and the hint of banjo in the fade-out. It sounds like the poppy love-child of Creedence and The Eagles. The verdict is in: I like it, more than I initially thought. And, putting it in context, this isn’t the first ‘soldier-at-war’ themed #1 that we can perhaps attribute to the cultural impact of Vietnam. Think ‘Distant Drums’, or even ‘Two Little Boys’.
Christie were an English band named after their lead singer Jeff Christie. He wrote ‘Yellow River’ for The Tremeloes, but they turned it down. Christie recorded it for themselves and they enjoyed their sole week at the top of the charts. They had one further Top 10, the similarly chugging ‘San Bernadino’. And, despite me having genuinely never heard ‘Yellow River’ before writing this post, it has been covered by artists as renowned as R.E.M. and Elton John.
One more thing, before we go. We’ve just reached the end of a thirteen-song stretch of one-time chart-toppers. From Zager & Evans in August ’69 through to Christie in June 1970, that’s almost a year’s worth of artists grabbing their sole #1 single. We won’t meet any of them again. I called it a record when we had eleven in a row a while back, but thirteen surely has to be a record. We shall see…
A couple of times already, I’ve written about pop music as hymn. ‘Hey Jude’ was one. Here’s another. The one, and only, British chart-topping single for America’s foremost pop duo. (Sorry Don and Phil, Hall and Oates…)
Bridge Over Troubled Water, by Simon & Garfunkel (their 1st and only #1)
3 weeks, from 22nd March – 12th April 1970
I’m only going to write good things about ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’, but I have to get off my chest first and foremost that I didn’t always like this song. It was a big presence in my childhood – my parents are big fans – but for a long time I thought it was a bit proper, a bit overwrought, a bit… too much like a hymn! Art Garfunkel certainly does enunciate his lines properly (the cut-glass ‘t’ in when tears are in your eyes…) and, if you were being cruel, he does sound a little like a choir-boy.
But you’re allowed to make dubious musical choices when you’re young (*cough* Kid Rock *cough*). I have since come to see the error of my ways. This is an undeniable classic, from the understated confidence of the opening piano, to the giant crescendo of an ending.
And, fittingly for a song that sounds angelic, the lyrics are apparently sung by an angel. Someone looking out for you, someone who’s on your side. Like a bridge over troubled water, I will lay me down… They will follow you even at your lowest ebb, down and out on the streets, as darkness comes. Theories abound that the voice singing is that of heroin, the drug, and that the listener is an addict, which would be a spectacular twist in such a Christian sounding song. Simon and Garfunkel have always denied it.
After two verses of just voice and piano, in come the drums, like gunshots in the distance. And we start to build… I think the moment that this goes from being a great song and becomes one of the greatest is when Art’s voice dips: Oh, If you need a friend… Then the chorus comes in, and what was a simple ballad has grown into something massive without you even really noticing. Suddenly it’s ending with strings, and cymbals, and what sounds like fireworks. Suddenly it’s midnight on New Year’s Eve.
It’s superb. It’s timeless. It’s a classic. To think I used to prefer ‘Cecilia’. Seriously, though, I think ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ does sometimes lose something in its ubiquity. Twice in the past few years – decades after it originally hit #1 – the song has reached the top of the UK charts in the form of well-intentioned but fairly dreadful charity singles. It’s kind of easy to lump this record in with other easy-listening, uplifting MOR hits, but that would be a mistake.
And, like many of the best pop songs, there’s a friction working under the surface of ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’. Simon and Garfunkel weren’t the best of friends by this point, and would split up later in the year. Simon apparently resents the fact that he wrote their biggest hit but Garfunkel gets remembered for singing it. When he performed it on his farewell tour, in fact, he introduced the song by saying “I’m going to reclaim my lost child.”
Actually, I have to confess that I’ve been slow to realise the merits of not just this song, but of Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel’s entire back-catalogue. I was force-fed them on childhood car journeys and, while I’ve come to recognise that ‘The Sound of Silence’, ‘Mrs. Robinson’ and ‘Homeward Bound’ are great, and ‘The Boxer’ a work of art, I still find the likes of ‘I Am a Rock’, ‘America’ and ‘Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M.’ a bit twee. I can’t stand their version of ‘El Condor Pasa’. And part of me is still seven-years-old, and still loves the outright catchiness of ‘At the Zoo’ and ‘Cecilia’. In fact, there probably is no other act about which I am so undecided. I genuinely have no idea whether or not I like Simon and Garfunkel! I do definitely like ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’, though, and definitely think you should press play below and enjoy it one more time…
And so the 1960s, the decade that’s given us so much fine, fine pop music, so much invention, so much sonic expansion, comes to an end. With Rolf effing Harris.
Two Little Boys, by Rolf Harris (his 1st and only #1)
6 weeks, from 14th December 1969 – 25th January 1970
Though in some ways, having a convicted sex-offender at #1 is actually a very appropriate introduction to the 1970s… Yes, let’s get this out the way at the start. Rolf Harris is currently serving a lengthy jail sentence for indecently assaulting several underage girls. (Of course, he’s not the last sex-offender that we’ll meet on our journey through the charts.) I won’t make light of it, because it’s not something to make light of.
To the song, then. Is it a novelty? Is it a ballad? Is it traditional pop? Music hall? All of these things? It’s a tale, as the title suggests, of two little boys. We open on a summer’s day, a back garden somewhere in suburban Australia. (Harris sounds extremely Australian here, especially given that he doesn’t really sing the song as much as he talks us through it.) Two little boys had two little toys, Each had a wooden horse… One boy, Jack, breaks his toy, and starts crying, upon which his little buddy, Joe, offers him a go of his own horse. When we grow up we’ll both be soldiers, And our horses will not be toys… If this were a movie we’d be rolling our eyes at some pretty heavy-handed signposting…
Fast-forward many years. The boys are now soldiers, at war. Cannon roared loud, And in the mad crowd, Wounded and dying lay… One of the little boys. But what’s that? From the fray dashes a horse. Yep, little boy number two… Did you think I would leave you dying, When there’s room on my horse for two…? The roles are reversed: Joe is now in peril, and Jack comes to his rescue.
It’s utter sentimental crap, perfect for the grannies at Christmas. But at the same time, goddamit, it tugs at something. It hits you right in the feels, for want of a better expression, when the marching drums and trumpets fall away, and Harris near-whispers: Can you feel Joe, I’m all a tremble… Perhaps it’s the battle’s noise? But I think it’s because I remember, When we were two little boys… Then we end with what sounds like ‘The Last Post’. It’s a celebration of male friendship, of non-romantic love, even if it does play to the very outdated idea that men can only express affection to one another on the battle, or sports, field.
‘Two Little Boys’ was written many years before, way way back in 1902. The lyrics about ranks so blue make me think it’s set in the US Civil War. Which automatically puts it high up the table of the ‘oldest’ chart-toppers. You’ve got ‘It’s All in the Game’, originally from the 1910s, ‘Lily the Pink’ from the 1870s, ‘Cumberland Gap’ from the mid-eighteen hundreds, and ‘I See the Moon’, parts of which date from the 1780s.
It’s a song that brings about conflicting feelings. Cheesy; but somehow touching. Familiar, but also not a song you can play in public these days… In fact, it’s odd to look back at Rolf Harris’s career from a 2020 vantage point. Growing up in the nineties he was still a constant figure on TV – he sketched, he sang, he cracked jokes, he did his weird wobble board and played his didgeridoo. He was as Australian as Lamingtons (his biggest hit in the UK prior to his sole chart-topper was the Top Ten ‘Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport.’) And then he was disgraced and, to be honest, erased from history…
I was half-expecting to not find ‘Two Little Boys’ on Spotify, remembering the furore that R Kelly’s music caused when they reinstated it, as if he was the first pop star with a seedy past. But it’s there; and that’s only right. Harris is a convicted child molester, but his music was, and in some circles probably still is, popular. If people feel uncomfortable listening to it – completely understandable – they can choose not to. But the decision not to listen should be ours, not Spotify’s or HMV’s. That’s my tuppence-worth, anyway…
But enough of that, we should be focusing on the positives! We’re about to jump into the 1970s, the decade of glam, of disco, of punk and new-wave. I’m excited. You should be excited. Hey! Ho! Let’s go!
Listen to every number one from the 1960s (and the 1950s) here!
It’s become a bit of theme recently – every so often we take a pause from pop music’s race into the future to enjoy a good, old-fashioned ballad. First with Ken Dodd, then Jim Reeves, and now Tom from the Valleys.
Green, Green Grass of Home, by Tom Jones (his 2nd of three #1s)
7 weeks, from 1st December 1966 – 19th January 1967
A soft, swaying intro precedes a tale of a man returning home, from a long time away. The old home town looks the same, As I step down from the train… And doesn’t Tom sing it well? There’s something in the Welsh waters… Why are they such good singers? Why is it Welsh Male Voice choirs, and not Geordie Male Voice choirs?
He runs towards his long-lost love, Mary: Hair of gold, And lips like cherries… And then he heads home: There’s that old oak tree, That I used to play on… It’s a heart-warming song for Christmas. One for all the family. Yes, it’s good to touch, The green green grass of home… Like most Tom Jones songs, it helps if you’re a bit drunk. I love the saloon-bar piano, that really adds a ‘last-call’ vibe. And, also like most Tom Jones songs, it’s a karaoke classic. Not quite ‘Delilah’, but getting there.
I love a song that tells a story, verse by verse. Just where has this man been all this time…? And ‘Green, Green Grass of Home’, like all good stories, has one hell of a twist. We break for a spoken-word interlude, in which the singer reveals that it was all a dream. And, who’s that? Why it’s the guard… And there’s a sad, old padre, On and on we’ll walk at daybreak, Again I’ll touch, The green green grass of home… Yep, plot twist: he’s getting executed.
I love it. Either he’s been wrongfully convicted, which only increases the power of the earlier verses, or you’ve spent the last two minutes sympathising with a murderer. The little piano riff to end is this song’s version of a ‘badoom-tish.’ And I’m similarly in two minds about this record as a whole. On the one hand, it’s mawkish, sentimental mush. On the other, it’s a great one for belting out in the shower.
And to be fair, this was a mega-hit. Seven weeks at #1 is longer than any record in the past three and a half-years, since The Beatles’ ‘From Me to You’. And, as I mentioned earlier, I doubt that this disc being released over the festive season hurt its chances. The idea of a ‘Christmas Number One’ wasn’t really a thing this early in the charts, but I do wonder if the success of ‘Green, Green Grass of Home’ set the tone for later, similarly saccharine, festive hits.
As for Sir Tom, similar to his first #1, ‘It’s Not Unusual’, I think we have to look at him as existing separately from his chart contemporaries. His other big sixties hits included ‘What’s New Pussycat?’ and ‘Help Yourself’ – nothing baroquey or folky, or Beat-poppy about them. But… If you’re never in fashion you’ll never be out of fashion. Maybe it’s this refusal to follow trends that’s allowed him all his comebacks: his Prince covers in the eighties, and his huge resurgence when I was in high-school. Looking back, how on earth did a near sixty-year old man singing ‘Sex Bomb’ become such a thing…? And he will hit the top-spot once more, briefly, in forty-two years’ time. Which, unsurprisingly, is by far the biggest gap between #1 singles, ever.
I read an article once, on The Guardian, about how 1966 was the best year in the history of pop music. You can check it out here. And, as we reach the penultimate #1 of the year, you look around and pretty much have to agree with them. Yes, the standard of chart-topper has been ridiculously high since mid-1963, while 1961 was eclectically fun and there were a few months in 1957-58 when every rock ‘n’ roll legend around was lining up for their moment in the spotlight… But 1966 beats them all. Because 1966 has this song.
Good Vibrations, by The Beach Boys (their 1st of two #1s)
2 weeks, from 17th November – 1st December 1966
How to even contemplate writing a post on ‘Good Vibrations’? How to say anything remotely original, anything that hasn’t been said a thousand times before. The genius of Brian Wilson… The hundreds of hours of tape… The synthesisers… The expense…. You’ve heard it all before.
So let’s listen to it, then, as if it were the first time we were ever hearing this hot new single from America’s biggest band. The follow up to their smash hit ‘God Only Knows’. Is this the disc to give them their long-overdue 1st British #1…?
It comes in all dreamy, and echoey. Angelic vocals and a shimmering backing track. I, I love the colourful clothes she wears… It’s trademark Beach Boys – high-pitched harmonies – but completely different to, say, ‘Barbara Ann’. And when the drums come in, like a drunken horse clomping around its’ stable, it’s gorgeously woozy.
Then woosh! We’re into the chorus. Not hanging around. That insistent bassline. The UFO stylings of the Theramin. I’m pickin’ up good vibrations, She’s givin’ me the excitations… Perfectly nonsensical pop lyrics. More harmonising. Good – ba-ba – Good vibrations – ba-ba…
Verse II. Snap back to woozy bliss. I… I look in her eyes, She goes with me to a blossom world… Trips? To different worlds? Is that a drug reference I smell? Are you boys smoking pot down there…? It’s the summer of love come six months early. Repeat the chorus. You can tell that they were stitching different pieces of music together, in the way that the song swerves this way and that, but it never sounds forced.
Then another sharp turn, into jingle-jangly Baroque pianos. Things get woozier. I don’t know where but she sends me there… We’re mid-trip, but we don’t have time to relax. Because now we’re at a funeral. At least, there’s a funeral organ, and a plaintive chant: Gotta keep those love-good, Vibrations a-happenin’ with her… Which fades away and is replaced by a home-on-the-range whistle, and a throbbing bass… Aaaaaahhhhhh!
Good, good, good, good vibrations…! And then by the time you get to the layered na-na-na-nas you just want to say ‘Alright, boys, you’re just showing off now…’ Cue the fade-out, with the Theramin to the fore, as the aliens come and beam us all up. Phew.
It’s still The Beach Boys; but in a dimension we’ve never been to before. And it’s still a pop song; but one from a planet we’ve not managed to reach yet. The sonic shock you get when you hear it, alongside its contemporaries, is similar to that felt from ‘Telstar’, in 1962. Another record from another planet.
That was fun! I have to admit that for years I’ve viewed ‘Good Vibrations’ as a sort of museum piece – a work of art to be admired, but not enjoyed. Best viewed from afar. That happens with ‘The Classics’. ‘Good Vibrations’ would never crop up in any of my playlists. But maybe it should. Maybe I’ll add it today. It stands up as a pop song. At heart it’s a ditty about falling in love at first sight. Musically, it’s outrageously creative without being pretentious. Perfect.
I love that this was The Beach Boy’s first UK #1. Slamming right in at the top with a little disc called ‘Good Vibrations’… Of course, it wasn’t their first hit. In 1966 alone, they’d had two #2s, with ‘God Only Knows’ and ‘Sloop John B’. In their native US they were huge, and had been for years. The only reason they took a little longer to take off in Britain is that their early surf-rock songs didn’t resonate on an island where any attempt at surfing usually ends in frostbite.
‘Good Vibrations’, and the ‘Pet Sounds’ album that preceded it, was a line in the sand. The Beach Boys were upping their game, and were ready to take on the British big boys: namely John and Paul. Anyway… You can read hundreds of more sophisticated analyses of ‘Good Vibrations’ – the record that changed pop music. You know where to find them. If, though, for reasons best kept to yourself, you have never heard ‘Good Vibrations’ before (or even if you’ve heard 1000 times already) press play on the link below, and get yourself some excitations…
Taking a break from the usual proceedings, I’m going to use this week to take a look at the folks behind some of the 210 #1s we’ve heard so far. The writers, the producers and, in the case of our first post, the conductors…
In the early days of the charts, when big productions and even bigger voices were all the rage, any self-respecting chart-topper needed an orchestra to back up them up. On the 45s of the time, nearly every #1 is assigned to both a lead artist and an orchestra. ‘Here in My Heart’, by Al Martino, with Orchestra under the direction of Monty Kelly… ‘Outside of Heaven’, by Eddie Fisher with Hugo Winterhalter’s Orchestra and Chorus…
Perhaps for reasons of convenience, the Official Singles Chart don’t list the orchestra, or it’s conductor, for any of the early chart-toppers. Which is strange, I suppose, as in modern times we have no problem with crediting ‘featured’ artists on a dance or rap track. Maybe it’s because we don’t actually hear their voices… Whatever the reason, several men have missed out on their moment in the record books. Winterhalter and Kelly, Frank Cordell, Stanley Black, Harold Mooney, Mitch Miller…
I’ve chosen Paul Weston as the frontman for this piece, though, thanks largely to his work with Frankie Laine. Weston was a Massachusetts born musician, who had been a pianist in a dance band, before becoming a song-writer and music director at Capital, and then Colombia Records. He conducted and arranged all three of Laine’s 1953 hits: ‘I Believe’ (still the song with the most weeks at #1 in the UK, sixty-five years on), ‘Hey Joe!’ and ‘Answer Me’. He also conducted on Jo Stafford’s ‘You Belong to Me’, Britain’s 2nd ever chart-topper. Stafford and Weston had married not long before recording the song.
Paul Weston with his wife, Jo Stafford
If Paul Weston were actually credited with his work on #1 singles, he would sit at joint 10th place in the all-time weeks at the top of the UK singles chart list with 29 weeks’ worth of chart-toppers, tied with ABBA and Take That, and one week behind Drake. Later in the 1950s he went on to do TV work, helped to start up the Grammy Awards, and worked for Disney. He passed away in the mid-nineties.
One conductor who did get credited on his hit records was the Italian, Annunzio Paulo Mantovani who, like all the best pop stars, went by just the one name: Mantovani. He was popular enough to score a solo, instrumental number one single in 1953: The Song from ‘The Moulin Rouge’, which had been a big hit in the cinemas that year. This success, and his subsequent fame is, I’m guessing, why he is the only conductor to be credited by the Official Charts Company, for his orchestral accompaniment on David Whitfield’s overwrought ‘Cara Mia’ in 1954.
Mantovani, doing his thing
Conductors and their orchestras became less essential once rock ‘n’ roll arrived, but they still occasionally popped up on the more bombastic number ones. The last one I can think of was Shirley Bassey’s ‘Climb Ev’ry Mountain’ / ‘Reach for the Stars’ double-‘A’ side from 1961, which was credited, on the vinyl at least, to Geoff Love and His Orchestra.
To the conductors, then, and their batons, which shaped the sound of the singles chart’s earliest years.
We reach the Stones’ third UK number one, and a theme is starting to emerge. Every one of their chart-toppers – ‘It’s All Over Now’, ‘Little Red Rooster’ and now this – has opened menacingly. Something in the clanging chords, the deep, rumbling bass, the clashing cymbals, the ever-so-slight discordance of it all… Every time they come along it’s like they’re crashing a sedate little party. We’ve just had The Seekers’ campfire singalong, and Tom Jones’s cheesy cabaret. Now the Stones have hijacked the hi-fi, cracked out the Jack Daniels and dumped a big bag of weed on the table.
The Last Time, by The Rolling Stones (their 3rd of eight #1s)
3 weeks, from 18th March – 8th April 1965
One other big difference between the Stones and everything else around at the time is the way that the vocals are blended right in amongst the other instruments. In pretty much every song since the charts began (discounting, of course, instrumental hits) the voice – the lyrics – was the most important thing. But here, Jagger’s voice is mixed right in. There are times when you can’t – shock horror – quite make out what he’s saying. My gran hated The Rolling Stones for this very reason…
Still, you can make out enough of the words to get the message. Mick is seriously considering breaking up with his girl. Well I’ve told you once and I’ve told you twice, But you never listen to my advice, You don’t try very hard to please me, With what you know it should be easy… and Sorry girl but I can’t stay, Feeling like I do today, Too much pain and too much sorrow, Guess I’ll feel the same tomorrow… Textbook treating them mean to keep them keen – a theme of early-Stones (see also ‘Heart of Stone’, ‘Play with Fire’ and the outrageous ‘Under My Thumb’.)
I love the non-committal chorus: This could be the last time, This could be the last time… I don’t know… It’s almost worse than saying ‘this is the last time’. He might break up with you, if he can be bothered. You’re probably not really worth breaking up with, though. Weren’t they awful…
The chorus is poppier than either of their previous two hits, but this is still an out and out rock song. Keith Richards lets loose in the solo, and Jagger goes wild in the fade-out – screeching and hollering as the guitars clang, the cymbals smash and parents across the land tut disapprovingly. It’s easy to forget, in 2019, as the Septuagenarian Stones shuffle out onstage at the latest super-dome, like holograms of their former selves, just how shocking they must have been at the time. Doing this countdown, and listening to them making their mark at the top of the charts in ‘real time’, I can kind of get a glimpse of it. How much fun it must have been to be fourteen in 1965, pissing your parents off by playing the latest Stones single at full-blast.
This record probably isn’t one of the band’s best-remembered hits. They’re all still to come. But it does have quite the legacy – an orchestral version by Stones producer Andrew Loog-Oldham was sampled by The Verve in 1997 as the basis for their mega-hit ‘Bittersweet Symphony’, resulting in a court case that was just resolved earlier this year. It also – and I had no idea about this before now – appeared as a sample at the top of the charts as late as 2009, in the unlikely form of ‘Number 1’, by Tinchy Stryder ft. N-Dubz. Well, there you go… The Who covered it much earlier, in 1967, in support of Mick and Keith following their imprisonment on drug charges.
More importantly than any of that, ‘The Last Time’ can perhaps be seen as the arrival of The Rolling Stones Mk II. The cover versions are out – this was the first Jagger-Richards composition to be released as a single – and beefier production is in. They were rewarded with three weeks at the top, and The Beatles suddenly had competition for the title of biggest band in the country. Their next #1 will raise the stakes even further, but that’s a story for another day…