551. ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’, by The Crowd

It’s our third charity chart-topper in six months, after over thirty years of managing quite happily without them, and so I’m introducing a new template. For every charity single that features henceforth, I’ll first spend a paragraph detailing how terrible the tragedy that inspired it was. I’ll then spend several more paragraphs detailing how terrible the ensuing record is… Sounds good?

You’ll Never Walk Alone, by The Crowd

2 weeks, from 9th – 23rd June 1985

The serious bit, then. On 11th May 1985, at a Third Division match between Bradford City and Lincoln City, a fire broke out in the main stand of the home side’s Valley Parade stadium. A fan had dropped a cigarette butt through a hole in the floor, where it landed on a pile of litter. On a dry and windy day, the stand was engulfed with flames inside five minutes. Fifty-six people died, many horrifically burnt alive, while another two hundred and sixty five were injured.

Gerry Marsden, of Gerry & the Pacemakers fame, decided to make a record to raise money for the victims and their families, and settled on a cover of his band’s 1963 #1, ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’, which was already a popular terrace song. He assembled a cast drawn from all corners of the British popular entertainment scene…

And the record sounds exactly as you’d expect. It is a large group of people singing along to ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’. It’s not awful; it’s far from being particularly good. It’s karaoke, recorded solely to make money for a good cause. I’m sure Marsden’s heart was in the right place (and he wasn’t just bandwagon jumping his way back to relevance). The most interesting thing about it, by far, are the people involved. Band Aid was full of bright young things; USA for Africa was a ‘Who’s Who’ of American pop. The Crowd are, well, a crowd.

Let’s start with the musicians. There’s Gerry Marsden (becoming the first person to top the charts with the same song), there’s Jim Diamond, Kiki Dee, Denny Laine, Tony Christie and Rick Wakeman. There’s Rolf Harris… There’s Motorhead and The Nolans! (Any record that manages to feature both Motorhead and The Nolans cannot simply be dismissed…) There’s Phil Lynott of Thin Lizzy, John Entwhistle of The Who, and Frank Allen of The Searchers. There’s Black Lace!! And then there are the non-musicians… The DJ Dave Lee Travis, the boxer John Conteh, the comedian Keith Chegwin, certified national treasure Bruce Forsyth…

Frankly, there are too many to list properly. It is a mind-bender of a lineup, a walking pub quiz question of a number one… Some bloke called Paul McCartney is relegated to a spoken-word ‘B’-side (completely understandable when you’ve already booked Rolf Harris and Cheggers…)

The fact that this record gave a #1 single to so many different people makes me think it should be better remembered. Except, then I press play one more time and realise why this has been quietly forgotten. It’s neither good enough, nor bad enough, to linger very long. And, sadly, the Valley Parade fire would also be overshadowed by another disaster in a British football stadium before the decade was out… ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’, meanwhile, has been back atop the charts fairly recently, still raising money for charity.

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159. ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’, by Gerry & The Pacemakers

Gerry and his gang make it three number ones in a year – three in ‘63. A feat that not many acts manage. But this is a disc light-years away from their first two chart-toppers.

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You’ll Never Walk Alone, by Gerry & The Pacemakers (their 3rd and final #1)

4 weeks, from 31st October – 28th November 1963

It starts very simply. When you walk… A voice, a piano, a sparse drumbeat, and a bass… Through a storm, Hold your head up high, And don’t be afraid, Of the dark… Yup, we are definitely a long way from ‘I Like It’.

It’s a motivational song – a ‘never-give-up’ number about holding onto your dreams, even in your darkest hour. And Gerry Marsden certainly sells it here, building in confidence as the song progresses with his slightly rough-round-the-edges scouse crooning, and an affecting tremble in his voice. Walk on, Through the rain, Though your dreams be tossed, And blown…

Then the violins kick in, and the band and George Martin pull out all the stops to make sure there isn’t a spine left untingled. Walk on… Walk on… With hope in your heart, And you’ll never walk alone…. It’s a classic, an anthem. There’s a quick drop following the first chorus and then BOOM – we’re back for a big ol’ finish.

What on earth, though, were Gerry and The Pacemakers doing recording a version of ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ in the first place? It’s such a weird trio of chart-toppers: ‘How Do You Do It?’ – perky Beat-pop, ‘I Like It’ – perky Beat-pop, ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ – umm… It’s from a Rodger’s & Hammerstein musical, ‘Carousel’, first performed in 1945 as their follow-up to ‘Oklahoma!’ In the show, the song is sung by the lead-female character’s sister to comfort her following her death of her husband.

However, in the UK, and much of Europe, ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ has become completely disassociated from the original musical, and even from Gerry & The Pacemakers. Ask your average youngster in the street today if they know the song and they’ll probably say ‘yes – it’s the Liverpool Football Club song.’ It’s a record – more so than any of the other chart-toppers that we’ve covered so far – that has, for better or worse, taken on a completely new role in the decades since its release. At every Liverpool home game, just as the players run out onto the pitch, you’ll hear that piano and Gerry Marsden’s husky tones. Then, just as it arrives at the big finish, the P.A system will cut out and the crowd will take it home.

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Legend has it that in the early sixties the P.A. would play the Top 10 ahead of each match at Anfield. For four weeks in November 1963, ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ was the last song played due to it being atop the charts. But even after it was knocked off the top and dropped out the charts, the crowd kept singing it. The Pacemakers were hometown lads, after all, and the lyrics and melody of the song do lend themselves to being sung en-masse at a football match. So it stuck. ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ is the Liverpool FC song now. It’s sung at every game. It’s carved above the gates at Anfield. Liverpool supporters sign off from message boards and forums with ‘YNWA’.

But… Football being a tribal game, this means that any supporter of a club that isn’t LFC has to, basically, hate this song. Especially those who grew up in the seventies and eighties, when the buggers were winning everything. I would never particularly choose to listen to this song, as I’m not a Liverpool fan. It’s left ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ in a very weird position in British popular culture – a song that everybody knows; but one that only a select portion of the population will actively enjoy. And, amazingly, I’ve only just scratched the surface here. The song will top the charts again, and will become indelibly connected to two of the biggest tragedies in recent British history. All that for another day…

Away from football, ‘YNWA’ (those Liverpool fans might be on to something here) has been recorded by everyone who’s everyone: Elvis, through Roy Orbison, to Susan Boyle. It would literally take half an hour for me to type out all the artists who’ve done their take in the song. Gerry and The Pacemaker’s version remains, in the UK at least, the definitive one. But I’ve not answered my initial question from several paragraphs back… Why on earth did they take such a big step away from their Merseybeat roots, and so early in their careers? Could it have, perhaps, been their downfall? You can’t imagine The Beatles ever recording a showtune, can you? It was the band’s last #1, and they would only have three further Top 10s. By 1965 their chart-careers would be over. It’s a huge collapse (similar to the way Liverpool threw away the league title at Crystal Palace a few seasons ago… I couldn’t resist…)

Still, three #1s from their first three singles was an unprecedented achievement at the time, and one that wouldn’t be matched for over twenty years. They split up in 1966, with Gerry going into cabaret and children’s entertainment.

Before we finish, I have one big problem with this record (and it’s nothing to do with football). I’ve mentioned ‘The big finish’ a couple of times now; but the song doesn’t actually have one. The song build and builds, and builds, for two minutes and twenty seconds, and is crying out for a huge, epic, grandiose finish. But they bottle it. In the middle of the last ‘never’, Gerry pauses, the soaring violins fall away, and the song ends with a bit of an anti-climax. It’s a strange decision. I don’t know if it was Marsden’s, another band member’s, George Martin’s or maybe even Rodger’s or Hammerstein’s back in the forties. But for me it doesn’t work. It leaves me feeling a little flat. I’ll leave it to the crowd at Anfield to give this song the big finish that it deserves.