Recap: #241 – #270

Well, phew, we made it through the craziest run of number one singles yet. Time to pause and get our breath back.

The last 30 took us from the very end of 1967 through to the early summer of ’69. Through 1968, the most eclectic year for number one singles ever, I’m guessing. That’s the thing with these recaps. Sometimes there’s an overriding theme to them – the rock ‘n’ roll recap, the Merseybeat recap – sometimes there’s not. For recap #9, the very lack of an overriding theme is the theme. The eclectic recap.

Somethings about it are fairly predictable, though. This is a recap bookended by The Beatles’ 13th and 16th number one singles: ‘Hello, Goodbye’ and ‘Get Back’. They have just one more to come… Another theme that brings the last thirty together is length: our chart-toppers are getting longer. Several have gone beyond four minutes, and we broke the five minute barrier on three occasions. Hell, we even went beyond seven minutes on one memorable occasion.

We might as well get straight to it, then. Dishing out the latest WTAF Award for the records that were interesting if nothing else was always going to be a challenge this time around. I can count at least eight discs with a legitimate claim to the throne. Much easier, though, will be choosing the record that gets my ‘Meh’ Award for instant forgettability. Very few of the most recent #1s can be forgotten very quickly at all. I half-thought about ‘(If Paradise Is) Half As Nice’, by Amen Corner, as that didn’t really grab me. Or ‘Mighty Quinn’ by Manfred Mann for not being my cup of tea. ‘Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da’, by Marmalade for just being a super basic cover version. But no. One man shone out, duller than the rest. Step forward Des O’Connor, for re-invigorating an easy-listening genre that was so 1967. ‘I Pretend’ is our winner.

In another recap, any of these singles could easily be crowned the most bizarre: Georgie Fame’s ‘The Ballad of Bonnie and Clyde’ for the high body count. ‘Cinderella Rockefella’ for the obscene yodelling. ‘The Legend of Xanadu’, by Dave Dee and Co. for taking us on a journey to… somewhere. ‘The Good, The Bad and The Ugly’, for being a very specific, and by this point two years old, movie score that people kept buying more than any other record for a whole month. Peter Sarstedt’s ‘Where Do You Go To (My Lovely)’ for its tale of a Neapolitan street-child done good. Desmond Dekker’s ‘Israelites’ because I couldn’t understand a word of it. Even ‘Get Back’, with Paul McCartney’s giggles and sweet Loretta Martin’s struggles…

But even amongst that competition, one record stands out. A record that begins by shouting the line: I am the God of hell-fire…! Congratulations to The Crazy World of Arthur Brown, for living up to their name and for being just that little bit crazier than the rest. ‘Fire’, is our winner.

It’s been hard for a definable ‘sound’ to make it through all the noise in recent months. But every so often the ‘sound’ of the late-sixties has popped through. ‘Everlasting Love’, ‘Young Girl’, ‘Mony Mony’ –  all seemed to take the best the decade has had to offer – a bit of soul, a dash of Motown, a foundation in Beat pop – to offer a glossy new vision of what’s to come.

Then there’s the newest sound on the block, reggae. Eddy Grant and The Equals previewed it. ‘Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da’ mimicked it. Then Desmond Dekker and The Aces finally brought it to the table. ‘Israelites’ was the rawest #1 single in many a year – thrillingly uncompromising. But not, in my opinion, one of the very best…

Before we announce the best, though, let’s drag out and shame the worst. I can’t award ‘I Pretend’ twice, that wouldn’t be fair. (It did stink, though.) So I have in my hands two records. ‘Cinderella Rockefella’, by Abi and Esther Obarim, the first Israelis to hit #1 in the UK, fact fans, and ‘Lily the Pink’, by The Scaffold. Both annoyingly catchy. Both aiming for something that was lost on me. But… Abi and Esther managed to just about stay the right side of interesting. ‘Lily the Pink’ had gotten old by the second verse. The Scaffold are this recap’s Very Worst Chart-Topper. Plus, as a novelty record, at Christmas, I think it might be the reason why novelty records at Christmas are a thing… Teletubbies, Bob the Builder, LadBaby… It’s all on The Scaffold.

In amongst all the fun, some interesting subplots might have passed you by. Cliff got his first #1 in three years with the irrepressible ‘Congratulations’. Louis Armstrong became by far the oldest chart-topping artist, well into his sixties. The Rolling Stones returned with a bang. We bid The Beach Boys farewell and met Fleetwood Mac for the first and, surprisingly, the last time with a song that sounded nothing like Fleetwood Mac.

To the best of the best, then. As I tend to, I have it down to four discs. Tommy James & The Shondells’ ‘Mony Mony’, for simply being a brilliantly fun pop record. ‘Hey Jude’ for being ‘Hey Jude’. Joe Cocker’s ‘With a Little Help From My Friends’ for reinventing the cover version. And Marvin Gaye’s ‘I Heard It Through the Grapevine’, for showing that pop can be grown up, catchy and, most of all, cool.

I thought it was a forgone conclusion. ‘Hey Jude’ is ‘Hey Jude’, and you can feel its influence in rock music, in society as a whole, to this day. In every rock band that records a lighters-up ballad. In Oasis’s most overblown moments. In bands like Coldplay, Embrace, Snow Patrol. In football stadiums. In pubs. Being murdered at karaoke nights. All these reasons have convinced me… to name ‘I Heard It Through the Grapevine’ as our latest Very Best Chart-Topper. Don’t get me wrong, ‘Hey Jude’ is an epic piece of music, but it has a lot to answer for…

marvin-gaye

To recap the recaps:

The ‘Meh’ Award for Forgettability: 1. ‘Hold My Hand’, by Don Cornell. 2. ‘It’s Almost Tomorrow’, by The Dream Weavers. 3. ‘On the Street Where You Live’, by Vic Damone. 4. ‘Why’, by Anthony Newley. 5. ‘The Next Time’ / ‘Bachelor Boy’, by Cliff Richard & The Shadows. 6. ‘Juliet’, by The Four Pennies. 7. ‘The Carnival Is Over’, by The Seekers. 8. ‘Silence Is Golden’, by The Tremeloes. 9. ‘I Pretend’, by Des O’Connor.

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. 3. ‘Hoots Mon’, by Lord Rockingham’s XI. 4. ‘You’re Driving Me Crazy’, by The Temperance Seven. 5. ‘Nut Rocker’, by B. Bumble & The Stingers. 6. ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’, by Gerry & The Pacemakers. 7. ‘Little Red Rooster’, by The Rolling Stones. 8. ‘Puppet on a String’, by Sandie Shaw. 9. ‘Fire’, by The Crazy World of Arthur Brown.

The Very Worst Chart-Toppers: 1. ‘Cara Mia’, by David Whitfield with Mantovani & His Orchestra. 2. ‘The Man From Laramie’, by Jimmy Young. 3. ‘Roulette’, by Russ Conway. 4. ‘Wooden Heart’, by Elvis Presley. 5. ‘Lovesick Blues’, by Frank Ifield. 6. ‘Diane’, by The Bachelors. 7. ‘The Minute You’re Gone’, by Cliff Richard. 8. ‘Release Me’, by Engelbert Humperdinck. 9. ‘Lily the Pink’, by The Scaffold.

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. 3. ‘Great Balls of Fire’, by Jerry Lee Lewis. 4. ‘Cathy’s Clown’, by The Everly Brothers. 5. ‘Telstar’, by The Tornadoes. 6. ‘She Loves You’ by The Beatles. 7. ‘(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction’, by The Rolling Stones. 8. ‘A Whiter Shade of Pale’, by Procol Harum. 9. ‘I Heard It Through the Grapevine’, by Marvin Gaye.

The next thirty #1s will take us well into a bold new decade… ¡Vamos!

P.S. The current Covid-19 situation has meant that I’ve been able to write more posts, and so I’ll aim to publish them a little more regularly! Every cloud… Take care, everyone!

Check out the earlier recaps here:

#1 – 30, #31 – 60, #61 – #90, #91 – #120, #121 – 149, #150 – 180, #181 – 210, #211 – 240

Recap: #61 – #90

And so we embark on our 3rd recap. Ninety number ones gone; lots and lots more to come, don’t you worry. We’re about to reach the 1960s and, as you might have heard, things get pretty interesting during that particular decade. But wait, we get ahead of ourselves. Let’s rewind: the past thirty #1s have taken us from June 1957 through to October 1959, keeping up our run of roughly two and a half years between recaps.

I’m struggling to remember which ‘wave’ of rock ‘n’ roll we’re on. I think we’re on the 3rd wave… Or is it the 4th? At the end of the last recap we’d had Bill Haley kicking things off and then a bunch of older, established stars like Guy Mitchell and Kay Starr jumping on the bandwagon. During the last two years, then, we’ve entered the ‘Golden Age of Rock ‘N’ Roll’ and met icons such as Elvis! Buddy Holly! Jerry Lee Lewis! Connie Francis! The Everlys! Cliff! But we’ve also, more recently, seen rock ‘n’ roll become more and more diluted, more pop-ified. For every ‘Great Balls of Fire’ there’s been a ‘Diana’, for every ‘That’ll Be the Day’ there’s been an ‘Only Sixteen’. You can track this change just by using Elvis as a barometer – we’ve gone from the unmistakeable ‘Jailhouse Rock’ to the slightly cabaret-ish ‘A Fool Such as I’ in a little over a year.

On that note, there have been an abundance of decent, perfectly acceptable pop-rock #1s that I’m going to pass over completely when talking about the best and worst of the last thirty. The likes of The Kalin Twins’ ‘When’, Jerry Keller’s ‘Here Comes Summer’ and The Everly Brothers’ ‘All I Have to Do Is Dream’… You’re safe. But safe don’t win no awards! I’m also – perhaps controversially – going to resign all four of Elvis’s #1s so far to similar status. None of them have been bad – ‘One Night’ / ‘I Got Stung’ has probably been the pick of the bunch – but there have been much better (and much, much worse) records hitting the top these past couple of years.

An honourable mention too, to the handful of #1s that have felt slightly out of place during this past thirty. We had ‘The Winter of the Ballad’ – the run that started with Conway Twitty, through Jane Morgan’s ‘The Day the Rains Came’, Shirley Bassey, and finished with The Platters ‘Smoke Gets in Your Eyes’. All decent enough – very decent in the case of The Platters – but all slight outliers when compared to the prevailing style of the time.

Speaking of ‘the style of the time’… compared to the previous thirty chart-toppers, this lot have been a much more homogenous bunch. We’ve been short on instrumentals, short on film soundtracks, there’s been very little C & W, no mamboes or tangoes… just a lot of mid-range, common or garden rock ‘n’ roll. Which means it’s been hard to choose the weirdest disc because, well, very few recent hits have been terribly, or even mildly, crazy. I thought about giving it to Marvin Rainwater’s ‘Whole Lotta Woman’, because it was a song about lovin’ larger ladies and that was mildly more diverting than the ‘I love you, Yes I do…’ kind of lyrics we’ve been inundated with. But, truth be told, it’s still a pretty bog-standard rock-pop number. Not worthy of award status. Praise be, then, to Lord Rockingham’s XI for giving us the madcap ‘Hoots Mon’ in November 1958 – a moment of Caledonian craziness that is the winner of this recap’s ‘WTAF’ Award.

It has not, however, been hard to pick out any number of bland #1s. In fact, so many of them started to blend into one another that it’s been tough to narrow it down to just one. Michael Holliday’s ‘The Story of My Life’? Pretty dull. Perry Como’s ‘Magic Moments’? A ‘classic’ for sure; but pretty darn twee. Craig Douglas? Kinda cute, I guess. Jerry Keller’s ‘Here Comes Summer’… No – I’m going to give the ‘Meh’ Award, for the most forgettable chart-topper of the past thirty to… Vic Damone’s ‘On the Street Where You Live’. Just for the fact that it has been done many, many times before: an overwrought, old-fashioned relic from the pre-rock days that had no place hitting the top of the UK charts in June of 1958.

Before we get on to the best and the worst, I want to touch once more on something I mentioned a couple of posts back. The issue of ‘sexiness’… I said in the previous recap that British stars had loosened up a little and were starting to shake and shimmy like the Americans. But I kind of feel as if we’ve regressed over the past couple of years. It hit me when the Great British Rock ‘n’ Roll Hope, Cliff Richard, scored his first number one… with the cheesy, and slightly creepy ‘Living Doll’. Then Craig Douglas’s corny ‘Only Sixteen’ furrowed my brow further. I cast my eye back to Lonnie Donegan, Michael Holliday and Lord Rockingham’s XI and really started to wonder why, even though Brits were recording rock ‘n’ roll hits, they all sounded silly, a bit nudge-nudge wink-wink, slight leftovers from the Victorian music hall. I know that British pop stars will one day be cool, cooler even than the Americans, but I’m still wondering when this transformation will occur.

On to the main awards then. The Best can wait; let’s cast our eye over the Worst. In truth, there haven’t been very many terrible #1s this time round. I thought about ‘Mary’s Boy Child’, but that would have been pretty harsh on a heartfelt Christmas number. So I looked further, and saw lots of average ones, as I mentioned earlier, but nothing too excruciating. And then I remembered… Russ Conway and his piano stinkers! Do I plump for ‘Roulette’? Or ‘Side Saddle’? Decisions, decisions… By dint of it being his second #1, thus inflicting a second dose of piano-led blandness on the charts, let’s crown ‘Roulette’ as the worst, most plinky-plonky, most in need of an actual melody #1! If it had come in, say, 1954 I might not have noticed it in amongst the OTT balladry and jolly instrumentals of the pre-rock age. Coming as it did in June 1959, it stood out like a sore thumb. Sorry Russ.

And the best. The very best. Not just of this period but perhaps some of the best pop music ever recorded. These are the heights that we have, at times, scaled in recent months. I’ve whittled it down to four. ‘That’ll Be the Day’ could get it just for that intro alone, before you mention the sexy arrogance of Buddy Holly’s lyrics. ‘Who’s Sorry Now’ would be a worthy winner for bringing GRRL POWER to the top of the charts for the very first time. Bobby Darin’s ‘Dream Lover’ could get it simply for being a supremely classy record – the perfect point of contact on the rock and pop Venn diagram. But the award goes to… Goodness!… Gracious!… ‘Great Balls of Fire’! An explosive record encapsulating all that is great and good about the music we call rock ‘n’ roll, a record that speaks to the heart (and other parts further down the body) rather than the head, and the best two minutes a piano has ever had.

To recap the recap, then:

The ‘Meh’ Award for Forgetability: 1. ‘Hold My Hand’, by Don Cornell. 2. ‘It’s Almost Tomorrow’, by The Dream Weavers. 3. ‘On the Street Where You Live’, by Vic Damone.

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. 3. ‘Hoots Mon’, by Lord Rockingham’s XI

The Very Worst Chart-Toppers: 1. ‘Cara Mia’, by David Whitfield with Mantovani & His Orchestra. 2. ‘The Man From Laramie’, by Jimmy Young. 3. ‘Roulette’, by Russ Conway.

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. 3. ‘Great Balls of Fire’, by Jerry Lee Lewis.

OK? Very good. On then, as they say, with the show …

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…