Remembering Lonnie Donegan

Today we remember Britain’s very first rock star. Cliff? Tommy Steele? Marty Wilde? They were but cabaret entertainers giving rock ‘n’ roll a go. Lonnie Donegan? He rocked, well and truly.

I remember listening to his first number one single, and thinking woah. ‘Cumberland Gap’ came in in the spring of 1957, between Tab Hunter’s schmaltzy ‘Young Love’ and Guy Mitchell’s goofy ‘Rock-A-Billy’. It was a short, sharp slap round the face and you can read my original post here. (The live version below is even more ferocious). It’s a traditional American folk song, given the British skiffle treatment, and to my ears it is punk come twenty years early. It was also the first of many times that a Scot has topped the UK charts.

‘Cumberland Gap’ wasn’t Donegan’s breakthrough hit: he’d been scoring Top 10s since 1955, and would amass sixteen of them before his chart career was cut short by the Merseybeat explosion. (Ironically, many of those bands had been hugely influenced by Lonnie and his Skiffle Group. The Beatles began when Paul McCartney joined John Lennon’s skiffle band a few months after ‘Cumberland Gap’ had been at #1.) Here is his first hit: ‘Rock Island Line’, a #8 in the UK and, significantly, a Top 10 in America too.

Born in Glasgow, but raised in the east-end of London, Lonnie Donegan had a background in trad-jazz before moving into the new skiffle movement. His subsequent hits included his 2nd number one, a double-‘A’ side of ‘Gamblin’ Man’ and ‘Putting on the Style’, and the brilliantly named ‘Does Your Chewing Gum Lose Its Flavour (On the Bedpost Overnight)?’. That hit veered towards the music hall, and it was the same style of hit that gave Donegan his third and final chart-topper, ‘My Old Man’s a Dustman’. I don’t think I was as impressed by that record in my original review, as humour is a hard thing to get right in a record, and it doesn’t necessarily age well.

It’s tempting to blame Donegan’s shrinking chart fortunes on the song he released for the 1966 World Cup: ‘World Cup Willie’. (Willie was a lion, and the official mascot for the tournament.) It didn’t chart, but it perhaps spurred England on to their win. (Yes, England won the World Cup in 1966. They still mention it from time to time…) I had never heard it, and was ready to hate it, but it’s actually a bit of a trad-jazz foot-stomper. You can see, though, why skiffle hard-liners felt betrayed by Donegan’s move away from the genre in the sixties.

Despite the hits drying up, Donegan and his band continued to tour throughout the seventies and eighties. This was despite him suffering several heart attacks, one of which killed him on this day in 2002. The Beatles aside, his legacy also lives on through artists like Roger Daltrey, Mark Knopfler and Jack White.

Lonnie Donegan, 29th April 1931 – 3rd November 2002

242. ‘The Ballad of Bonnie and Clyde’, by Georgie Fame

Happy New Year! We step into 20… I mean 1968, but if you were expecting the penultimate year of the sixties to bring daring news sounds to the top of the UK charts… then keep waiting. The first #1 of the year is a step back in time. To the saloon bars of 1920s America…

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The Ballad of Bonnie and Clyde, by Georgie Fame (his 3rd and final #1)

1 week, from 24th – 31st January 1968

We’ve got banjos, trombones, honky-tonk pianos, an intro with very strong hints of Fats Domino… To be honest, I love it from the get-go. It’s fun, it’s kinda dumb… It’s a history lessons at number one!

Bonnie and Clyde, Were pretty lookin’ people, But I can tell you people, They were the devil’s children… Georgie Fame’s back for one final moment of glory, but he’s traded the blue-eyed soul for some trad-jazz. He lists the famous duo’s crimes – robbing stores, stealing cars, before they made the graduation into the banking business – and sounds like he’s having a load of fun in doing so.

It’s a chart-topping record with a hefty body count – the bloodiest #1 since ‘Mack the Knife’. Sample line: They left him lyin’ in a pool of blood, And laughed about it all the way home… And it’s a chart-topping record with sound-effects! Getaway cars, sirens and, best of all, a round of carbines as the heroes of the tale meet their end. Yep, Fame sticks to the facts – no riding off into the sunset for Bonnie and Clyde here. And very few #1 singles will ever feature lines like: Actin’ upon, Reliable information, A federal deputation laid a deadly ambush…

It’s odd, isn’t it? A chart-topping single that so glorifies two serial killers. There’s a glamour to Bonnie and Clyde, though, isn’t there? The romance, the fast cars, the cigars… You can’t imagine ‘The Ballad of Harold Shipman’ being such a smash… The famous movie starring Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway had been a hit the previous year. ‘The Ballad…’ hadn’t featured in the film, but Fame had been inspired to write the song after seeing it.

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The record, fittingly, ends on a melodramatic note. A long drawn out coda, in which the duo draw their last breath. And finally together, They died… A few years back, any mention of death in a hit single seemed guaranteed to cause controversy. The Everly Brothers, Ricky Valance and co. all got airplay bans for their ‘death-discs’. Society has clearly moved on during the sixties, in more ways than one. (Though this was apparently censored in the US thanks to the machine-gun sound effects.)

I like it. A completely random interlude to the swinging sixties, the sort of bizarre post-Christmas number one that the charts can sometimes throw up as they wait for the first big hits of the year. Though perhaps we should class Georgie Fame as a ‘big’ artist. This is, after all, his third #1. The same total as The Kinks, The Searchers, Sandie Shaw and other sixties royalty. Two more than Dusty! Three more than The Who and Dylan! Somehow, though, he’s kind of slipped under the radar, with his soulful, bluesy, Latin-tinged hits. I do love the fact that he never had a top ten hit that didn’t make #1. All or nothing for Mr. Fame. He’s now seventy-six, and still performs from time to time. The pop charts of the 1960s were a better place for his sporadic appearances at the top.

1968 is off with a bang, then. Literally, what with the mass shooting that ends this record. I made a point in the last post about 1967 having no one-week chart-toppers, and now the first one of this year has lasted only seven days. Here’s to what’s looking like an eclectic year! Onwards…

Listen to the first fourteen (and a bit) years’ of #1 singles with my handy playlist:

118. ‘You’re Driving Me Crazy’, by The Temperance Seven

Attention, readers. Do not panic. Do not adjust your dials. We have not, I repeat not, somehow warped back in time to 1923. This is The Temperance Seven, and this record did indeed hit #1, in the UK, during the early summer of ’61.

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You’re Driving Me Crazy, by The Temperance Seven (their 1st and only #1)

1 week, from 25th May – 1st June 1961

If I wasn’t already familiar with this song, I’d have assumed after the first minute or so that we were dealing with another instrumental. The first, and perhaps only time, that one instrumental record has deposed another from the top of the charts. But no. It’s just that the intro here is long and winding. Clarinets, trumpets, tubas (?)… I’m guessing there’s a sax in there somewhere too. This is a jazz record. Not jazz pop, or jazz rock, but proper, traditional Jazz. The sort that goes with flappers doing the Charleston, and gin rickeys. The sort of jazz that soundtracked all-night parties on West Egg. And we get a minute and ten seconds of this pure jazzin’ before a voice comes in…

You left me sad and lonely, Why did you leave me lonely? Lyrically, this is very simple number one. A girl is driving a man crazy… I’m burning like a flame, dear, I’ll never be the same, dear… The delivery is very knowing, extremely arch. It’s not really sung; more enounced with gusto. One pictures Noel Coward leaning against a mantlepiece, cigarette dangling lazily between two fingers, eyebrow raised… You, You’re driving me crazy… What did I do? Oh what did I do?… My tears for you, Make everything hazy… Clouding a sky of blue… The lyrics only last for a few lines, taking up barely a minute of song-time (and, at a second or two shy of four minutes, this is our longest number one so far.) It is listed as a ‘vocal refrain’, by a Mr. Paul McDowell, which only adds to the kitschy feeling.

The remainder of this record saunters along – very catchily, very jauntily… It’s an undeniably fun song. And I do like the fake-ending. But…

Something’s up here… Why is this jazz disc grabbing a week atop the charts in the post-rock ‘n’ roll era? Why is the ‘singing’ so camp? Why does this whole song feel as if it’s being delivered with a big, pantomime wink? Should I be listing this as a ‘novelty’, rather than a ‘jazz’ record? I probably should. The Temperance Seven were an Art School band, who claimed to have formed in 1904 in something called the Pasadena Cocoa Rooms… But they hadn’t – they got together in 1955 in Chelsea. They were darlings of the late 1950s London art scene, and performed at one point with comedian Peter Sellers on vocals. Imagine the cast of Monty Python in a revival of ‘Chicago’ and you’re halfway there. This record is, for want of a better description, a piss-take.

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It’s cute, it’s meta… It’s deliberately aping 1920s jazz with its tongue lodged firmly in its cheek. It’s not like previous #1s – ‘Whose Sorry Now’, ‘Mack the Knife’ et al – where old songs were covered and rebooted. This is our first ‘retro’ #1 – a record that deliberately sounds old, foreshadowing the likes of Showaddywaddy and Shakin’ Stevens by well over a decade. And it’s a pastiche done very well – The Temperance Seven were all accomplished musicians – and so the record also works as a piece of simple nostalgia. It’s also worth noting that this record was produced by one… George Martin. Of Beatles-producing fame. And whiffs of The Temperance Seven do come through in some of the Fab Four’s stuff… Listen to ‘You’re Driving Me Crazy’, and then ‘When I’m Sixty-Four’, or ‘Honey Pie’ for example.

I’m in two minds here. I like the fact that it’s something completely different. It’s one of the weirdest number ones yet; probably one of the weirdest ever. It’s gloriously odd. It’s cool that this got anywhere near the top of the singles chart. But… There were countless ‘proper’ Trad-Jazz artists releasing records at this time. Kenny Ball, Chris Barber, Acker Bilk all had some huge hits – ‘Stranger on the Shore’ and ‘Midnight in Moscow’ and all that. Louis Armstrong was having a bit of a chart-renaissance, too. None of them got to number one, though. The jazz revival of the early 1960s is represented at the top of the UK charts, for a solitary week, by a bunch of art school kids having a bit of a laugh. And I’m not sure how I feel about that…

I am slightly biased, though. The first CD I ever bought – aged seven or eight – was a compilation full of Trad-Jazz classics. Lots of Barber, Bilk and Ball. I wanted to learn the saxophone. I wanted to be Satchmo. Even now I’ll put a Trad-Jazz playlist on when I want music that I don’t really have to listen to (and I mean that as a good thing). Nothing too experimental: no bebop, no improv… Just good, old-fashioned jazz (I did jazz-hands there as I typed that).

I have to say, though, moral quandaries over this record aside, 1961 has been an excellent year for chart-toppers. Pure pop, doo-wop, piano rags and now this… The only blot on the page – and it’s a sizeable one – has been the abominable ‘Wooden Heart’. Long may the variety, and the fun, continue!