280. Rolf Harris – Two Little Boys (1969)

Boxing Day 1969: A fire broke out at the 15th-century Rose & Crown hotel in Saffron Walden when a TV in the lounge overheated. 11 people died that night, which led to the passing in 1971 of the Fire Precautions Act 1971.

The previous day, children all across the country will have opened their Christmas presents, and if they had BBC One on their television sets, they may have seen delighted to see Australian children’s entertainer Rolf Harris was meeting patients at Queen Mary’s Hospital for Children, Carshalton, Surrey. I’m betting that during the show, he’ll have sang that year’s Christmas number 1, and final chart-topper of the decade, Two Little Boys. Until a few years ago, it was a fondly remembered anti-war song by a national treasure. Now it’s an uncomfortable reminder that a paedophile tricked us all for nearly 50 , and the name of the song has only helped it become a sick joke.

Few stars have fallen in the UK as swiftly and completely as Harris. He was our favourite Aussie, loved by most, including me. And then in 2013 he was arrested and interviewed for allegations related to Operation Yewtree, set up by police in the wake of the Jimmy Savile sex scandals.

Harris was born on 30 March 1930 in Bassendean, Perth in Western Australia. He was named after Rolf Boldrewood, the pseudonym of a writer his mother, Agnes, admired. As a child, Harris loved to paint, and aged 16 and studying at Perth Modern School, his self-portrait was one of 80 works out of 200 to be hung in the Art Gallery of New South Wales as an entry in the 1947 Archibald Prize. He won his first art prize two years later. In his adolescence he was also an excellent swimmer, winning several competitions in the 40s and 50s. This is perhaps why he starred in a public information film in the 70s encouraging children to learn to swim.

He moved to England in 1952, and aged 22 he was studying at City and Guilds of London Art School in South London. Only a year later he had his big break in TV, performing a regular 10-minute cartoon drawing section on the BBC children’s show Jigsaw. By 1954 he was a regular on a similar show, Whirligig. When Harris wasn’t on TV (he also starred in ITV show Small Time from 1955) or learning from impressionist painter Hayward Veal, he could be found every Thursday at a club called the Down Under, where he would hone his entertainment skills.

By 1959 Harris was married to Welsh actress Alwen Hughes and back in Perth after being headhunted. His popularity exploded there and as well as presenting a children’s show and a variety show, he recorded his first single, Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport on one mic with four local musicians and his wobble board. He had his first hit, reaching number 1 in Australia in 1960. It sold well in the UK too and became one of his signature songs.

One of his most notable early hits was Sun Arise in 1962. Produced by George Martin, it was more serious than his usual fare, and I used to love listening to it, finding it pretty psychedelic. Harris couldn’t play the didgeridoo so the sound was replicated by eight double basses. Back in the UK, he got to know the Beatles, possibly through Martin, and despite being angered by them interfering in his act off the side of the stage during one of the Fab Four’s Christmas shows, they struck up a friendship. His 1965 single Jake the Peg became one of his most beloved songs. This tale of a man with an ‘extra leg’ would also sadly take on a whole new dimension once the truth came out.

As well as introducing us to Australian musical instruments, Harris became known in 1968 for his association with the futuristic Stylophone. He would use this miniature analog stylus-operated keyboard on his records and on TV, and he and David Bowie helped popularise the instrument. It did wonders for his street cred in the 90s when musicians like Pulp, Orbital and Stereolab began using it too, remembering Harris’s adverts from their childhood.

By the time of his number 1 single, Rolf Harris was untouchable (sadly, as it turned out), presenting the long-running The Rolf Harris Show on the BBC, churning out novelty hits and becoming one of TV’s top celebrities thanks to his charming eccentricities and lovable image.

Always on the lookout for songs for his TV show, he fell in love with Two Little Boys (ahem… see?) in 1969 and asked musical director Alan Braden to arrange a version for him.

One of the oldest songs to reach number 1 for some time, this music hall song had been written back in 1902 by American composer Theodore Morse and lyricist Edward Madden and was made popular by Scottish comedian Harry Lauder. An unashamedly sentimental tale of two young boys who played together, then fought together in the US civil war, Harris was perhaps very canny to pick such a tune as the 60s drew to a close, with the war in Vietnam proving more and more unpopular. Allegedly, John Lennon congratulated him for getting a protest song to the top of the charts. The TV audience loved it, and so he released it in time for Christmas. It ended the eight-week run of Sugar Sugar over the festive fortnight and stayed there for most of January 1970. So, after light entertainment tunes, the dying embers of rock’n’roll, Beatlemania, psychedelia and rock, the charts came full circle, and a light entertainer ruled the roost again as the 60s drew to a close.

I was genuinely hurt and disappointed when the allegations came out about Rolf Harris. Savile wasn’t a surprise at all, he was clearly weird and had a dark side (although obviously I was shocked and appalled when the scale of his shocking crimes became apparent). I felt, like much of the country, betrayed that such a loveable guy could hurt children. I watched him perform four times at Glastonbury Festival, and Two Little Boys was always one of the highlights. Looking back, I maybe sensed he wasn’t the person we were led to believe. There were times during his performances there that his real personality perhaps slipped out, and I remember finding him a bit vulgar, and wondering if in actual fact he wasn’t the weird but harmless manchild he had hoodwinked us into believing in.

Listening to Two Little Boys is a sad and uncomfortable experience now. Don’t get me wrong, it was never a masterpiece, and wasn’t something I would ever casually listen to, but it was hard not to have a soft spot for a song so full of pathos. It was a song that could make the hardest of hearts melt for a minute or two. Even Margaret Thatcher loved it! It wasn’t cool and it didn’t matter. It was about the love between two friends down the years, forced into fighting a bloody war but still looking out for each other. And that filthy heavy-breathing bastard went has ruined it for everyone.

The 70s were leaner years for Harris’s music career, but he remained very much in the public eye through his TV shows. He performed at the Sydney Opera House in 1973, and became Sir Rolf Harris in 1977, before launching a new series, Rolf on Saturday — OK?, which ran for three years.

In 1982 he performed didgeridoo on Kate Bush’s album The Dreaming, and did so again on her 2005 album Aerial. He presented Rolf’s Cartoon Time on the BBC through most of the 80s, and then moved to ITV to host Rolf’s Cartoon Club from 1989 to 1993, which is where my earliest memories of him stem. Apparently he hosted a child abuse prevention video in 1985, called Kids Can Say No!

It was around this time he began to be loved by students who remembered him from their youth. His version of Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven returned him to the charts for the first time in years in 1993, and he made his Glastonbury Festival debut. As well as being an ironic figure of fun, his TV career went from strength to strength thanks to Animal Hospital, which did wonders for his public image and ran from 1994 to 2003.

Harris also moved back into serious painting, presenting Rolf on Art and then Star Portraits with Rolf Harris. He even painted the Queen for her 80th birthday in 2005. Three years later he re-recorded Two Little Boys to mark the 90th anniversary of World War One, after discovering that the song was remarkably close to the experiences of his own father and uncle during the conflict. In 2011 he appeared on Piers Morgan’s Life Stories and spoke of his experiences of clinical depression.

2012 saw Rolf perform at the Queen’s Silver Jubilee Concert, breaking out into a rendition of Two Little Boys to fill in time, before comedian Lenny Henry stopped him and was booed off stage. Then that October, Operation Yewtree began. The UK was still coming to terms with Savile’s crimes when Harris was arrested in March 2013 after many rumours he was one of the suspects. In June 2014 he was found guilty of 12 counts of indecent assault and subsequently sentenced over five years in prison. While inside, stories would occasionally appear of him having written abusive song lyrics about his victims. He was released in 2017, and was last in the news earlier this year having entered a school playground to wave at children. In this climate of #cancelled, Rolf Harris, now 88, will be loathed until the day he dies.

So, sorry to end such an innovative, startling musical decade on such a sour note, but I will be touching on the 60s again soon. Like my blog Every 50s Number 1, I will listen to the whole lot again and whittle them down to pick the best and worst of every year, before deciding on the best and worst of the decade. A mammoth task indeed.

And eventually we’ll resume with the 70s number 1s, but as Two Little Boys was at number 1 until 30 January, here’s a look at what made the news as the new decade began.

A few changes were rang in by Big Ben on New Year’s Day, with the age of majority for most legal purposes reduced from 21 to 18 under the terms of the Family Law Reform Act 1969. The half crown coin also ceased to be legal tender. The National Westminster Bank began trading that day following the merger of National Provincial Bank and Westminster Bank.

Following a cold spell, the weather in January became changeable. The grave of Karl Mark was vandalised by anti-Germanic racists at Highgate in London on 18 January. Three days later, Fraserburgh lifeboat Duchess of Kent capsized, and five of the six crew died.

22 January saw a Boeing 747 land in Heathrow Airport, making it the first jumbo jet in the country. And four days before the first new number 1 of the 70s, Rolling Stones singer Mick Jagger was fined £200 for possession of cannabis. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose, as the French would say.

Written by: Theodore F Morse & Edward Madden

Producer: Mickey Clarke

Weeks at number 1: 6 (20 December 1969-30 January 1970)

Births:

Politician Ed Miliband – 24 December
Jamiroquai singer Jay Kay – 30 December
Politician Andy Burnham – 7 January
Olympic rower Tim Foster – 19 January
Comedian Mitch Benn – 20 January
Art curator Maria Balshaw – 24 January

Deaths:

Actor Jimmy Hankey – 13 January
Urdd founder Ifan ab Owen Edwards – 23 January
Poet Albert Evans – 26 January
Military historian Basil Liddell Hart – 29 January

279. The Archies – Sugar Sugar (1969)

The penultimate number 1 of the 60s sat pretty in the top spot for close to two whole months, and only narrowly missed out on the Christmas number 1 spot. Before delving deeper into the slick pop of Sugar Sugar by the cartoon band, the Archies, what else was happening in the UK?

Three weeks into its run, regular colour TV broadcasts, began on both BBC One and ITV on 15 November. The very next day saw the BBC One debut of much-loved children’s stop-motion animated TV series Clangers.

The day after, in a move that had a far-reaching effect on the British press, The Sun newspaper, previously a left-wing broadsheet, was relaunched as a right-wing tabloid. Despite falling circulation, it remains influential and one of the most popular newspapers in the country.

On 25 November, John Lennon returned his MBE in protest against the British involvement in Biafra, as well as supporting the US in Vietnam. The Beatles as cuddly establishment moptops seemed a long time ago.

As a cold late November turned into a mild early December, Sugar Sugar held firm. On 10 December it was announced that organic chemist Derek Barton had jointly won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry with the Norwegian Odd Hassel. Barclays Bank purchased Martins Bank on 15 December, and three days later, the abolition of the death penalty was made permanent by Parliament. Whether our new government will bring it back, only time will tell.

Also that day, the sixth James Bond film, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, was released. This was the first and last to feature George Lazenby, after Sean Connery had quit the role.

Artists like the Beatles and Bob Dylan had made self-penned songs fashionable, and for most of the 60s, it was they and others of their ilk that often reached the top spot. But as the pop audience matured and moved on to buying albums, the gap was starting to be filled by bubblegum pop – squeaky-clean commercial songs, like Dizzy, made to order by hit-making teams, much like in the 50s, and given to singers such as Tommy Roe.

It would be a lie to say this type of thing had ever really gone away though. Motown aped the production-line of the car factories of its hometown Detroit, and the Monkees were a pop phenomenon whose songs were mostly written and recorded by other musicians, until they broke free. And it was Don Kirshner, the man that had been dumped by the Monkees, that came up with the idea of turning a comic into a band in 1968. From his point of view, it was a no-brainer. All had been going well until the Monkees got too big for their boots – why not start over, only this time, why not remove all pretence that the band is real? And why not use cartoon characters that already had a huge audience to give the project a head start? After all, it had worked in the 50s – Alvin and the Chipmunks had been and still are very successful.

Kirshner was hired by CBS in late 1967 to be musical supervisor on their new Saturday morning cartoon series The Archie Show. Based on popular characters from The Archie Comics, which began in 1941, it followed the adventures of a bunch of all-American teenage friends from Riverdale High School that had formed a band. 17-year-old Archie Andrews was the central figure, lead singer and rhythm guitarist. His best friend Jughead Jones was their drummer, with wisecracking Reggie Mantle on bass. But unusually, this wasn’t just a boy’s own setup, very unusual for that time. Rich girl Veronica Lodge also sang and played keyboards, and tomboy Betty Cooper was lead guitarist and percussionist. Girl power!

The show had a 17-episode run, premiering in the US in September 1968 until January 1969. Kirshner’s job was to hire the songwriters and musicians for the songs the Archies would be performing. He wasted no time in hiring Jeff Barry to co-produce with him. Barry, together with Ellie Greenwich, was responsible for some of the biggest pop hits of the decade, including Da Doo Ron Ron, Then He Kissed Me and Do Wah Diddy Diddy, a number 1 for Manfred Mann in 1964. He had co-written Tell Laura I Love Her with Ben Raleigh, which had been a UK number 1 for Ricky Valance in 1960, and worked with Kirshner on the Monkees’ hits, including producing their UK chart-topper I’m a Believer.

For their eponymous debut album, the Archies music was performed by singer Ron Dante, drummer Gary Chester, guitarist Dave Appell, bassist Joey Macho (great name) and keyboardist Ron Frangipane (even better name). Kirshner had wanted Kenny Karen to be the vocalist, but Barry liked Dante, who had been the singer novelty parody band the Detergents. He was also in the rock group the Cuff Links.

The first single released, Bang-Shang-A-Lang (sounds like a Bay City Rollers song title) did okay, reaching number 22 on the Billboard chart in the US, so the project continued.

For the sessions for second album, Everything’s Archie, Kirshner left Barry to produce alone. Among the material was a song by Barry and Canadian singer-songwriter Andy Kim. Sugar Sugar was catchy as hell, and encapsulated bubblegum pop totally. It was all wide-eyed innocence, as sweet as the title suggested and contained hook upon hook. Kim also plated guitar and joined Dante on the vocals, and Toni Wine performed the female voices. Wine was a songwriter too, and had co-written A Groovy Kind of Love with Carole Bayer Sager for the Mindbenders. Joining them and the line-up of the debut album was guitarist Sal DiTroia and Ray Stevens provided the all-important handclaps.

Sugar Sugar was so strong, they decided to release it before the LP was completed. Allegedly, because previous single Feelin’ So Good (S.K.O.O.B.Y-.D.O.O.) hadn’t performed well, Kirshner decided not to reveal the identity of the band behind Sugar Sugar when DJs got their hands on it in May 1969. Whether this is true or not, it was some time before it became really big. It eventually climbed to the top in the US that September, and the UK a month later.

I totally get the reasons for Sugar Sugar‘s enduring popularity, for all the reasons I’ve given above, and more – mostly the infectious keyboard interjections in the chorus, obviously. It has all the ingredients needed for a pop song. But it’s never done much for me. Even as a child, I found it a bit too sickly-sweet and cloying. I found the lyrics silly and the ‘band’ irritating, having never actually seen the cartoon, just the clips compiled to make a music video.

As an adult, it’s all a bit too cynical and professional for my liking. Don’t get me wrong, I no longer feel, as I did in my 20s, that music is only any good if the artist is ‘4 Real’, but try as I might, Sugar Sugar mostly leaves me cold. The ‘Pour your sugar on me, honey’ line is quite good though, and sung with some much-needed passion.

Sugar Sugar was the best-selling song of 1969 and stayed at number 1 for eight weeks – a feat that was last achieved by the Shadows with Wonderful Land in 1962. I can only assume the TV show was being shown in the UK at the time and doing well too, otherwise, why would it perform even better here than in the US? Whatever the reasons, it was a sign of things to come in the following decade, as bubblegum pop continued to sell hugely, and innocent acts like the Osmonds entrancing children. The idea of cartoon bands surfaces in the charts from time to time – Damon Albarn’s Gorillaz, for example.

Filmation continued to produce various Archies TV shows until 1978, but the musical project had ground to a halt before then. Nothing matched Sugar Sugar, and after follow-up Jingle Jangle (not featuring Jimmy Savile), the band’s success tailed off sharply. Fourth album Sunshine in 1970 (which has great sun-drenched, slightly sinister artwork that wouldn’t look out of place on a Boards of Canada release) was the last to feature Jeff Barry and Andy Kim properly, and was more grown-up than previous releases. 1971’s This Is Love was the final regular release.

Barry became interested in writing music for film and television afterwards, and Kim had a solo hit in 1974 with Rock Me Gently. After a short-lived solo career, Dante moved into production and did very well at it, producing hits for Barry Manilow. In 2008 he returned to the Riverdale teens, singing on The Archies Christmas Album. Kirshner continued to work in music for TV shows. He died of heart failure in 2011, aged 76.

Archie Comics continued to be mined, with Sabrina, the Teenage Witch proving to be the other most popular character. Archie Andrews was killed off in 2014, shot in the stomach while saving the life of his friend, Senator Kevin Keller. Riverdale was renamed Archie Andrews High School in his honour. 2017 saw the debut of TV drama series Riverdale, which turned the premise of the characters on its head, with the lives of Archie and co proving much darker than the original comic-strip could ever have been.

And while we’re on the subject of ‘dark’, if Sugar Sugar had lasted at number 1 a further week, it would have been Christmas number 1 and the final chart-topper of the decade. However, it was pipped by another hugely popular children’s song, now sadly infamous thanks to the singer.

Can you tell what it is yet?

Written by: Andy Kim & Jeff Barry

Producer: Jeff Barry

Weeks at number 1: 8 (25 October-19 December) *BEST-SELLING SINGLE OF THE YEAR*

Births:

Scottish actor Gerard Butler – 13 November
Rock drummer Michael Lee – 19 November
Politician Sajid Javid – 5 December
TV presenter Richard Hammond – 19 December

Deaths:

Bandleader Ted Heath – 18 November
Princess Alice of Battenburg – 5 December

278. Bobbie Gentry – I’ll Never Fall in Love Again (1969)

As the 1960s drew to a close in October 1969, one of the most successful songwriting partnerships of the decade, Burt Bacharach and Hal David, had one more UK number 1 in the bag, thanks to enigmatic US country music singer-songwriter Bobbie Gentry. The shocking Je t’aime… moi non plus made way after only a week for a more typical pop song, I’ll Never Fall in Love Again, making Gentry the final female artist to have a UK number 1 in the 1960s.

A year previous, Bacharach and David had been asked to write the score for the musical Promises Promises, which was based on the 1960 comedy film The Apartment. David Merrick felt his production was missing a catchy song in the middle of the second act. Unfortunately, Bacharach was in hospital with pneumonia and unable to work his magic on a tune, but David didn’t waste time in coming up with some lyrics, and inspired by his friend, he wrote the line ‘What do you get when you kiss a girl?/You get enough germs to catch pneumonia/After you do, she’ll never phone you.’

Bacharach loved it, and as soon as he was well enough, he composed the tune, quicker, he said, than anything else he’d ever written. I’ll Never Fall in Love Again was ready for the Broadway premiere of Promises Promises on 1 December 1968, and, sung by Jill O’Hara and Jerry Orbach, became the most famous song of the show.

As always, singers queued up to record a Bacharach and David song, and it had even more hitmaking potential than usual as it was already popular. Johnny Mathis was first, in May 1969, then Bacharach, with female singers, shortly after. But it took trailblazing Bobbie Gentry, who was at the height of her popularity in the UK, to get it to number 1 here.

Gentry was born Roberta Lee Streeter in July 1942 near Woodland in Chickasaw County, Mississippi. Her parents divorced soon after birth and her mother moved away, so Streeter was raised on her paternal grandparents’ farm. She loved music from a young age, so much so that her grandmother traded one of their cows for a neighbour’s piano. Aged seven, she composed her first song on it, My Dog Sergeant Is a Good Dog… aww.

While at school she taught herself to play the guitar, bass, banjo and vibraphone. Aged 13, she moved away from Chickasaw County to live with her mother in California, but she never forgot her childhood home, and based most of her material from place names around there.

Upon graduating in 1960 she chose her stage name, which was inspired by the 1952 film Ruby Gentry. The heroine of the movie was a girl born into poverty but determined to be successful. Bobbie Gentry meant business.

She started out at local country clubs, and upon moving to Los Angeles to major in philosophy, Gentry would occasionally perform in nightclubs. Blessed with a distinctive beauty, she also worked as a fashion model. She transferred to Los Angeles Conservatory of Music to develop her songwriting. Then in 1967, Capitol Records executive Kelly Gordon heard a demo tape that featured her self-penned Ode to Billie Joe.

Set to nothing more than Gentry strumming a guitar and a string arrangement added after she was signed, this unique tale of a family’s indifference to the news of a local boy’s suicide topped the Billboard chart in the US and made it to number 13 in the UK too. Such was its impact, the Tallahatchie Bridge that Billy Joe jumped off became a popular suicide spot, despite only being 20ft high.

Gentry was catapulted to fame. Her debut album that shared the name of her debut single knocked Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band off the top of the US charts, and she won three Grammy Awards in 1967. And what an inspiration for women – a female artist writing and producing her own material (even if, as Gentry alleged, her name was replaced by male producers in the credits) was extremely rare back then.

Although her second album, The Delta Sweete (1968) didn’t perform as well, the concept album based on life in the Deep South was loved by critics, and it was around this time the UK really took to Gentry. She even had her own BBC series, despite the fact none of her singles and albums were charting here. She also released a joint album with Glenn Campbell that year, too.

In a sign that the well was perhaps running dry, her 1969 album Touch ‘Em with Love consisted mostly of covers, and among those was its second single, I’ll Never Fall in Love Again.

It wasn’t unusual for Gentry to release covers – she recorded several Beatles songs – but I’ll Never Fall in Love Again was a rather MOR choice for such a hip, edgy feminist singer. It sounds like something from the mid-60s, which, whenever I’ve heard it crop up anywhere, is when I assumed it was released, and that Gentry was some swinging-60s, doe-eyed pop star. I’m going to guess that her management were keen on edging her towards a more light entertainment vein, to capitalise on her BBC series in the UK.

It opens well, with its pretty melody and great, memorable lyrics, and Gentry’s vocal is all wide-eyed melancholy. She sounds a little like Dusty Springfield, but also slightly off, and it turns out she had a cold when she recorded it. It’s very typical Bacharach and David, with clever lyrics offsetting the sugary-sweet tune. I’d argue it’s not one of their best songs though, and now I know it’s from a musical, perhaps that explains it. It may work better in the context of the show, which concerns a junior executive who aims to climb the corporate ladder by letting his apartment be used by his married superiors to conduct affairs. The final lines ‘So, for at least until tomorrow/I’ll never fall in love again’ are smart, but it outstays its welcome after the first minute. Had it been released a few years previous, my appreciation may have been higher.

But yes, the most interesting thing about this number 1 is the singer, and what happened next to Bobbie Gentry. Her follow-up single, Fancy, is considered by her fans to be perhaps her definitive work. A semi-autobiographical Southern Gothic track combined women’s lib with another catchy melody that blurred the lines of country, pop and soul. A number 1 in Canada, for some reason it failed to chart here.

Weirdly, her next album, also called Fancy, was renamed I’ll Never Fall in Love Again in the UK and featured a different track listing, to capitalise on her number 1, meaning it featured on two LPs in a row here.

In 1971 Gentry released her seventh and final album, Patchwork. Almost entirely self-penned and self-produced (she finally gained an official credit), it was critically adored, but didn’t sell. The introspective lyrics of the last song, Lookin’ In, suggested it was a final throw of the dice.

Like Elvis Presley, she spent most of the 70s in Las Vegas, with ever-more-elaborate stage shows that changed each year. She had an ‘Elvis spot’ in which she wore a high-collared bell-bottom jumpsuit like ‘the King’. There was also a 30-minute tribute to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. 1976 saw the release of the film Ode to Billy Joe, inspired by her debut hit, which she re-recorded for the movie.

Then in 1981, she walked out of showbusiness completely. She had just given birth to a son, Tyler, from her failed third marriage, and was caring for former partner and producer Kelly Gordon, co-writer of Frank Sinatra’s That’s Life, who died soon after of lung cancer. Rumours have circulated that, after her brief first marriage to casino magnate Bill Harrah ended in divorce, Gentry was so wealthy she need never work again, and so didn’t, choosing to live in a gated community in Memphis.

Whatever the reasoning behind her permanent disappearance from the public eye, it’s only added to Bobbie Gentry’s mystique. Last year, psychedelic alt-rockers Mercury Rev released their version of her second album The Delta Sweete, which briefly brought her back into the public eye. Now aged 77, it’s unlikely we’ll ever hear from her again. Fair play.

Written by: Burt Bacharach & Hal David

Producer: Kelso Herston

Weeks at number 1: 1 (18-24 October)

277. Jane Birkin and Serge Gainsbourg – Je t’aime… moi non plus (1969)

The all-new, spectacular seven-sided 50p coin was introduced on 14 October. The replacement for the ten-shilling note was given a rather mixed reaction from the Great British public, with many complaining that it was too similar to the 10p coin. It wasn’t, but there was enough shock of the new to contend with that week I guess, as we’ll find out shortly.

Opinion polls were suggesting that, come the next general election, the Conservatives, led by Edward Heath and ahead by up to 24 points, would easily trounce Howard Wilson’s Labour.

And ruling the charts was the muckiest, filthiest number 1 by far at that point. Je t’aime… moi non plus by French Lothario Serge Gainsbourg and his lover, English actress Jane Birkin shocked our stuffy nation and was banned by the BBC… but as is often the case with such singles, whatever the decade, its notoriety only helped its sales. It was also the first foreign language chart-topper.

One of the most important figures in 20th-century French culture, Serge Gainsbourg had been born Lucien Ginsburg in Paris on 2 April, 1928. He was the son of Jewish Russian migrants who had fled to the city after the Russian Revolution in 1917. His father Joseph taught Lucien and his twin sister Liliane to play the piano.

The young Ginsberg was deeply affected by Germany’s occupation of France during World War 2, and it would come out in his work in later years. Travelling under false papers, the Ginsburgs escaped to Limoges, which although safer, was still a dangerous place for French Jews.

Nonetheless they survived, and when the war is over, he found work teaching music and drawing in a school set up by rabbis for the orphaned children of murdered deportees. The stories he heard stayed with the horrified teacher for the rest of his life.

By the time he was in his early twenties, he changed his name to Serge Gainsbourg. He liked his new forename because it reminded him of his Russian heritage (and Lucien made him sound like a hairdresser’s assistant), and Gainsbourg in homage to the English painter Thomas Gainsborough.

Fast forward to the late 50s, and Gainsbourg, now married, was a shy, struggling songwriter, who felt the songs he was starting to develop would be too provocative for chansons. Singer Michèle Arnaud took him under her wing and offered to record his songs, and buoyed by her patronage, he released his debut album Du chant à la une!… in 1958.

Gainsbourg was too obsessed with sex and death to be famous just yet. But he became friends with legendary Belgian songwriter Jacques Brel and French singer Juliette Greco, with who he collaborated over the next few years.

In 1965 Gainsbourg, now on to his second marriage, finally found some mainstream success by writing Luxembourg’ entry into the Eurovision Song Contest. Poupée de cire, poupée de son, sung by French teen France Gall, won the competition. However, his next song for her, Les Sucettes, caused uproar. Turns out it wasn’t about lollipops, which is what the title translates into, but oral sex. Gainsbourg, who had once been ridiculed by audiences and critics for his looks, likely enjoyed pissing people off, and despite Gall’s career suffering for a while afterwards, Gainsbourg was onto something.

In 1967 Gainsbourg, divorced for the second time, began an affair with actress, singer and iconic sex symbol Brigitte Bardot. She asked him to write the most beautiful love song he could imagine, and he went home that night and wrote two of his most famous tracks. Bonnie and Clyde, which was released as a duet in 1968, and Je t’aime… moi non plus.

The title for the latter translates as ‘I love you… me neither’, which was inspired by a Salvador Dali quote: ‘Picasso is Spanish, me too. Picasso is a genius, me too. Picasso is a communist, me neither’. Gainsbourg would over the years describe it as ‘the ultimate love song’, or an ‘anti-fuck song’.

The secret lovers recorded the first version, and indulged in heavy petting when doing so, according to engineer William Flageollet. When word got out, Bardot’s husband was furious and Bardot pleaded with Gainsbourg not to release the recording. I looked forward to hearing this version, eventually released in the 80s, purely for research purposes and not for finding Bardot gorgeous you understand… it’s actually a disappointment. The arrangement is different, with more strings, and less organ, but the main problem is, Bardot’s performance is more reserved than Jane Birkin’s.

Birkin was born on 14 December 1946 in Marylebone, London. Her mother Judy Campbell was a stage actress and her father David Birkin a World War 2 spy. Her brother Andrew is a successful screenwriter and director. Birkin was raised in Chelsea, and aged 17 she met her future husband John Barry, the James Bond composer and former collaborator with Adam Faith on his number 1s What Do You Want? (1959) and Poor Me (1960). They married in 1965, and she became famous herself through her roles in counterculture films Blowup and Kaleidoscope, both in 1966, and Wonderwall in 1968. That year, she and Barry divorced.

Birkin auditioned for a role in Slogan in France in 1968. She became the female lead and co-starred with Gainsbourg, and together they performed the film’s theme song, La Chanson de Slogan. They fell in love, and what better way to commemorate than by recording a sexually explicit song? Was this also a slap in the face to Bardot? Possibly, but Birkin was definitely keen. She had heard the original and found it ‘hot’ and insisted they bring it out as a single, because she was jealous of his ex-lover.

With the organ taking centre stage and more prominent bass under a new arrangement by Arthur Greenslade, Gainsbourg and Birkin went in to record their vocals in a studio in Marble Arch. He told her to sing it an octave higher than Bardot, so she would sound ‘like a little boy’.

A typically shocking thing for Gainsbourg to say, but the shift in pitch between their two vocals does add to the contrast and highly charged erotic content. It’s difficult to imagine now just how shocking Je t’aime… moi non plus must have sounded 50 years ago, and its been used, covered and spoofed so many times, but if you overlook the slightly cheesy organ (so to speak), the explicit performance from Birkin is still pretty out there.

Put it this way, I couldn’t and didn’t play it out loud in front of the kids like I easily could any other number 1 before it. It brought to mind L’il Louis & the World’s 1989 house classic French Kiss. Featuring similarly orgasmic moans, it once came on at random in my kitchen and my eldest, then around five, asked why the lady was groaning. At a loss for an answer, I said she had a headache.

There are rumours out there that Birkin and Gainsbourg were actually having sex while recording this. I don’t believe that personally, but it makes for a good story. Birkin certainly puts in an effective performance though, totally letting go and making Gainsbourg’s cool detached replies in the chorus all the more effective too.

There’s a great translation and essay on the meaning of the lyrics of Je t’aime… moi non plus here, which proves it’s more than just two horny people getting it on. Some people consider Birkin is wildly in love with Gainsbourg in the song, and his ‘me neither’ means it’s purely about sex for him. But the site considers the possibility that Birkin doesn’t love Gainsbourg, that she’s just into the sex, and he knows this full well, hence his reply.

It also suggests that, and the rest of the vocals back this up, that if it is just about sex, than Gainsbourg is making sure she has the best time he can give her. Several times he says ‘Je vail et je viens/Entre ten reins/Et je me retiens’, which translates as ‘I come and I go/Inside of you/And I hold myself back’. The song’s ending is a literal climax, with Birkin demanding ‘Non! Maintenant! Viens!’ (No! Come now!)… Stirring stuff, really, and more sophisticated than most record buyers would have realised, especially in 1969. And I’d bet that the average British man at the time would have been astounded at the idea of such selfless sex.

It’s another quantum leap in pop music. We’ve gone from songs about love to seven inches of the hard stuff just like that, and although it proved too shocking to open the floodgates to many similar songs at the time, pop was never the same again. Je t’aime… moi non plus may have been filth, but it’s deep too.

Je t’aime… moi non plus sent shockwaves through the charts. In addition to being banned on many radio stations, Fontana, the label that released it, withdrew it from sale when it reached number two. Fortunately, Gainsbourg arranged a deal with Major Minor Records, and the combination of two different versions only helped its sales. An unusual occurrence in the charts, and I’m not sure if it’s happened before or since.

It wasn’t just deemed offensive in the UK though. It was banned from the radio in Spain, Sweden, Brazil and Italy. It was denounced by the Vatican. In France, it couldn’t be played before 11pm. And yet there have been countless covers and spoof versions over the years, by Giorgio Moroder & Donna Summer, Malcolm McLaren and Pet Shop Boys. The two versions I want to hear the most have to be by Frankie Howerd & June Whitfield and René & Yvette from ‘Allo! ‘Allo!. Just imagine…

Two years after the success of their sole number 1 single (and the album of the same name), Gainsbourg released the concept album Histoire de Melody Nelson, about a middle-aged man accidentally crashing his car into a teenage cyclist, and subsequently falling in love with her. Despite, or maybe because of its Lolita-esque story, it’s considered a landmark in French pop. Birkin provided the vocals for Melody and also featured on the provocative artwork.

Gainsbourg shocked once more in 1975 when his experiences of World War 2 inspired the album Rock Around the Bunker, featuring satirically light-hearted songs such as Nazi Rock. His last ‘rock’ album came out the following year, L’Homme à tête de chou (Cabbage-Head Man, which was his nickname).

Gainsbourg moved into reggae, and recorded Aux Armes et cætera, a version of La Marsellaise, with Rita Marley and Sly and Robbie. Many were appalled, and he received death threats. Bob Marley was also disgusted with him for persuading his wife to sing dirty lyrics on his 1981 album, Mauvaises nouvelles des étoiles.

Birkin gave birth to their daughter Charlotte, now a successful actress and singer herself. Following a break in acting, She returned in 1973 to play Brigitte Bardot’s lover in Don Juan, or If Don Juan Were a Woman. Gainsbourg must have loved that. In 1976 she starred in his film, Je t’aime moi non plus, which was banned in the UK. But after 13 years their turbulent, intense relationship finally ended in 1980.

It could be argued that he never really recovered, despite almost immediately beginning a relationship with Caroline Paulus, aka Bambou, which lasted until his death. He recorded two funk and hip-hop-influenced albums, 1984’s Love on the Beat and You’re Under Arrest in 1987, in which much of his wit and playfulness seemed to have been reduced to seeing how far he could go to shock people, even recording the track Lemon Incest with Charlotte, only 13 at the time.

Gainsbourg was becoming increasingly dishevelled, and became best known for his drunken, shambolic chat show appearances. Famously, in 1986 he interrupted a nervous Michel Drucker to announce on his chat show that he wanted ‘to fuck’ an understandably startled Whitney Houston, sat next to him on the sofa. On another show he shouted ‘You’re nothing but a filthy whore, a filthy fucking whore’ at Catherine Ringer, an actress who had also appeared in porn. Understandably, he didn’t appear on TV much after this.

In 1988 while judging a film festival he began to tell the audience an obscene story about Brigitte Bardot and a champagne bottle, which ended in him staggering offstage and collapsing in a seat.

On 2 March 1991 Serge Gainsbourg died of a heart attack, aged 62. Since then most of those final years have been forgotten and he is rightly considered a legendary figure in France for his intelligence and thought-provoking music and film work.

Jane Birkin continued to make music throughout the 70s and 80s, including the albums Ex fan des Sixties in 1978 and Baby Alone in Babylone in 1983. Her film work included in the adaptations of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express (1978) and Evil Under the Sun (1982), and she co-starred with John Gielgud in Leave All Fair (1985).

Despite finding love again with director Jacques Dollon, with whom she had her third child, Lou in 1982, The Observer reported in 2007 that they separated in the 90s because he ‘could not compete with her grief for Gainsbourg’. In 1998 she starred in Merchant-Ivory’s A Soldier’s Daughter Never Cries and saw out the 90s with the album À la légère in 1999.

The 00s saw her awarded an OBE in 2001, plenty more acting work, and three albums – Rendez-Vous (2004), Fictions (2006) and Enfants d’Hiver (2008). Her last album to date, 2017’s Birkin/Gainsbourg: Le Symphonique, featured orchestral reworking of their collaborations. A year previous, she starred in the Academy Award-nominated short film La femme et le TGV, which she announced would be her final acting work.

A multi-talented, multi-award-winning humanitarian and strong role model, Jane Birkin is now 72 and though her career has have slowed down, she has a fine body of work to look back on, and it would be unfair if she was mainly remembered for her number 1 duet – as great as it is.

Written by: Serge Gainsbourg

Producer: Jack Baverstock

Weeks at number 1: 1 (11-17 October)

Births:

Actor Dominic West – 15 October

276. Creedence Clearwater Revival – Bad Moon Rising (1969)

Early autumn 1969 in the UK was surprisingly mild, reaching 20C in London in early October. Following the sci-fi apocalyptic worldview of In the Year 2525 (Exordium and Terminus) at number 1, US rock act Creedence Clearwater Revival brought further warnings of the planet’s destruction with Bad Moon Rising.

And there was tension in the air on the warm streets of the capital, with police evicting squatters of the London Street Commune from 144 Piccadilly on 21 September, the day after it went to number 1. A week later on 28 September, the National Trust acquired ownership of the island of Lundy.

1 October saw the Post Office become a statutory corporation. Four days later, the first episode of classic surreal comedy series Monty Python’s Flying Circus was broadcast on BBC Two. Breaking new ground in comedy meant baffled audiences at first, but John Cleese, Graham Chapman, Michael Palin, Terry Jones, Eric Idle and Terry Gilliam would become comedy legends in time. And on Bad Moon Rising‘s 21st and last day at number 1, the Labour government accepted the recommendations of Lord Hunt’s report on policing in Northern Ireland, including the abolition of the Ulster Special Constabulary.

But back to Bad Moon Rising. Despite being one of the biggest American acts of the period, Creedence Clearwater Revival never scored a number 1 single in the US, and this was their sole chart-topper in the UK.

CCR’s main man, John Fogerty, was born in Berkeley, California in May 1945. His childhood was tough – in his memoir Fortunate Son he revealed that the Catholic School he attended would let him wet himself rather than take a trip to the toilet. His parents were alcoholics and divorced while he and his older brother Tom were still young.

In junior high school in 1959 he met Doug Clifford and Stu Cook. They formed a group called the Blue Velvets, who would play jukebox standards. They would also perform as Tom’s backing band, and before long he joined the Blue Velvets too. In 1964 they signed with the jazz label Fantasy Records. Before their first release under their ill-advised name change to the Golliwogs, the band switched roles. Clifford remained on drums, with Cook changing from piano to bass and most importantly, Tom was demoted from vocals to lead guitar, and John became the frontman and songwriter.

After two years, the Golliwogs’ existence was threatened (can’t believe I’ve just typed that) when John and Clifford chose to enlist in the army to avoid conscription, an experience which John hated. In 1967 Fantasy Records was bought by Saul Zaentz, who offered the Golliwogs the chance to record an album, providing they came up with a new name. Desperate for the group to avoid any accusations of racism, he accepted their first idea. ‘Creedence’ came from Tom, who had a friend, Credence Newball. ‘Clearwater’ was inspired by a commercial for Olympia Brewing Company, and ‘Revival’ represented their newfound commitment to the band.

Creedence Clearwater Revival were born in January 1968, with John and Clifford discharged from service, all four concentrated solely on their band. Debut single Porterville didn’t chart but their follow-up, a cover of 1956 rockabilly tune Susie Q did. Their eponymous debut LP was released that year too, featuring a mix of covers and original material from John.

It was while working on the follow-up, 1969’s Bayou Country, that they came up with one of their best-known songs. Proud Mary peaked at number two on the Billboard charts, and went to number eight here. It became their most-covered song, with the 1971 version by Ike and Tina Turner the best-known version.

CCR were working fast, and while Proud Mary was in the charts they were already at work on their third album Green River. Bad Moon Rising became the lead single. John Fogerty was inspired to write it after witnessing a scene with a hurricane while watching 1941 fantasy The Devil and Daniel Webster.

Following the hokum of Zager and Evans’ number 1, Bad Moon Rising is a song about the end of the world done right. Set to an uptempo, almost skiffle-style strum, the lyrics, telling of freakish weather that’s going to destroy us all, have only become more meaningful over the years. If what we read is true, and I’d put money on it being so, we’re not far off a bad moon rising at all.

There’s a whole other layer to the lyrics though, in which the danger isn’t from nature, but politics. It was once put to John that ‘I see a bad moon on the rise’ was misheard as ‘I see a bad moon on the right’, and he said he was glad, because that’s what he meant anyway. With Richard Nixon in the White House, Bad Moon Rising can also be interpreted as a protest song. And with Donald Trump and Boris Johnson now in a ‘special relationship’, things are worse than ever. On a lighter note, the line is also often misheard as ‘I see a bathroom on the right’, and John Fogerty often sings this instead in concert.

If it is too late for us, I suggest we adopt the CCR approach, which seems to be to have a bloody good time before we’re wiped off the face of the Earth. Southern-style country roots rock is a genre I’m not too knowledgeable of, and it’s hard for me to realise in 2019 just how influential and popular CCR were in the late-60s, early-70s, but if Proud Mary, Bad Moon Rising and Lookin’ Out My Back Door (courtesy of 1998 cult comedy The Big Lebowski) are anything to go by, I should perhaps do further investigating. Catchy as this single is, it’s still hard to picture it as a UK number 1 single, but it is a great tune.

Soon after the single’s release, but before hitting number 1, CCR performed at Woodstock Festival. The band blamed the Grateful Dead for leaving the audience half asleep before they came on, and they refused for their performance to be included in Michael Wadleigh’s documentary movie.

CCR released Willy and the Poor Boys that November, meaning an incredible three top ten albums in one year. It contained more hits, Fortunate Son and Down on the Corner, and in July 1970 they released yet another. Cosmo’s Factory became their bestselling LP and featured Lookin’ Out My Back Door and a lengthy jam session version of I Heard It Through the Grapevine.

However, their speedy work rate and arguments over the younger Fogerty’s creative control came to a head, and shortly after recording their next album Pendulum, released December 1970, Tom Fogerty left the group.

They soldiered on as a trio, but further ructions ensued when John Fogerty did an about-face and told Cook and Clifford that the only way they could continue would be for them to contribute to the songwriting, and if they did, he would only contribute rhythm guitar to their tracks. This resulted in their final album, Mardi Gras in 1972, being critically panned. If John was trying to make a point, it worked. He later claimed he was behind most of the recording of all their material before that point, not just the songwriting. The others were little more than a backing band. Rolling Stone said that Mardi Gras may one day be known as Fogerty’s Revenge. In October 1972, it was announced that Creedence Clearwater Revival no longer existed.

John Fogerty sporadically released solo material through the rest of the 70s. Tom did too, but to less success. Clifford and Cook remained close and worked together as session musicians. Apart from jamming together at Tom’s wedding in 1980, they never worked as a foursome again, becoming mired in legal battles over the years. John did briefly work with Cook and Clifford at their high-school reunion in 1983 though, but in their Blue Velvets incarnation.

Sadly, Tom died of AIDS in 1990 due to a tainted blood transfusion while undergoing back surgery. He and John were barely reconciled at the time of his death, and in his eulogy, John said ‘We wanted to grow up and be musicians. I guess we achieved half of that, becoming rock’n’roll stars. We didn’t necessarily grow up.’ He didn’t exactly cover himself in glory in 1993 when CCR were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Fogerty refused to perform with his former rhythm section and arranged an all-star band instead. Tom’s widow was devastated. She’d even brought his funeral urn to the ceremony.

That, and the fact Fogerty took them to court over forming a new group, Creedence Clearwater Revisited, meant that Clifford and Cook were done with Fogerty. In recent years he has publicly mulled over the possibility of a reunion, but they always respond by saying that ship has sailed.

Fogerty seems more at peace with the past now. For a long time he refused to perform any of his old band’s material but now he’s rightfully proud of CCR’s accomplishments. They and the Band helped turn roots rock mainstream, yet held on to their rebellious streaks. And Bad Moon Rising has proven to be one of their most enduring songs, used time and time again in films and TV, most memorably in 1981 horror comedy An American Werewolf in London.

I briefly saw him at the ultra-soggy Glastonbury Festival 2007. I was in a very bad mood, the rain and mud had finally beaten me. I heard Bad Moon Rising, knew how he felt, sighed and wandered off. I wish I’d stuck around now.

Written & produced by: John Fogerty

Weeks at number 1: 3 (20 September-10 October)

Births:

High jumper Jo Jennings – 20 September
Welsh actress Catherine Zeta-Jones – 25 September
Footballer Paul Warhurst – 26 September
Singer/songwriter PJ Harvey – 9 October
Director Steve McQueen – 9 October

275. Zager and Evans – In the Year 2525 (Exordium and Terminus) (1969)

By the time Honky Tonk Women was knocked off its lofty perch after five weeks, the second Isle of Wight Festival was in full swing. 150,000 people witnessed Bob Dylan’s comeback, and the Who put on a memorable show. Other acts included Free, the Bonzo Dog Band and the Moody Blues.

Number 1 at the time were the folk duo Zager and Evans with their one and only hit In the Year 2525 (Exordium and Terminus), a kitschy sci-fi doom-laden track proved a timely release in the aftermath of the Apollo 11 moon landing. But it’s certainly no Space Oddity.

Denny Zager and Rick Evans were both born in Nebraska, in 1944 and 1943 respectively. They met at Nebraska Welseyan University in 1962. While there they joined the band the Eccentrics, along with drummer Danny Schindler (who later joined the Benders… stop laughing). In 1965 Schindler left for Vietnam, and Evans then also left the group. At some point in the previous year, he had written the original, unheard version of In the Year 2525 (Exordium and Terminus), which was likely more in keeping with the fashionable folk-rock scene of the period.

They went into the studio to record their hit after becoming a duo in 1968, by which point they had backing from Mark Dalton on bass and Dave Trupp on drums, who both also played with the Liberation Blues Band.

I don’t think I’ve ever got over the fact that In the Year 2525 (Exordium and Terminus) doesn’t live up to its name. It should be cosmic psychedelic rock, like Funkadelic, but it’s musically dull, repetitive and dated – it doesn’t even stand up to scrutiny when you try and excuse it by saying ‘well it was written in 1964 originally’. Folk music was already in much more adventurous territory back then.

Zager and Evans think they are smarter than us and want us to know that humans are doomed. Now, I happen to agree with them, especially with the current state of our politics, and reading recently that we have 18 months left to save the planet from climate change, but many artists have made this point way, way better than Zager and Evans. The lyrics are awful. Sixth-form standard, if that. Some of their predictions are prescient, such as the rise of automation, but their time scales are stupidly huge. Every verse jumps up from 2525 to 6565, with various nightmare scenarios. Some genuinely horrible, such as ‘Ain’t gonna need your teeth, won’t need your eyes’, but some which are pure pulp fiction, like taking a pill every day that controls your thoughts. Sounds like an episode of Star Trek, which never did much for me.

Then we suddenly jump to talk of judgement day in 7510, purely because they want a number that rhymes with the dire line ‘If God’s-a-coming, he ought to make it by then.’ Well, you’d hope so, wouldn’t you?! But no, we shoot all the way up to 9595, and Zager and Evans are ‘kinda wondering if mankind is still alive’. All over the same boring rhythm. And then, we’re back in the year 2525, and it starts all over again! God, please don’t wait, put us out of our misery now!

I’m all for a bit of melodrama, but the pompous vocals lay it on so thick, it goes from laughable to just really grating. I kept this song in my collection for years, as I found it comically bad for a while, then after listening to it for this blog, I realised I don’t ever want to hear it again, and deleted it. It all also sounds like I imagine a no-deal Brexit could wind up, and we’re getting dangerously close to that.

Much more enjoyable is Flight of the Conchords’ spoof of this sort of thing, The Distant Future.

With the decade drawing to a close, and man landing on the moon, thoughts were turning to what the future held, and if we even had one. And purely for these reasons, Zager and Evans found themselves at number one in the US and the UK. They seized the moment and recorded an album, 2525 (Exordium and Terminus) with Trupp and Dalton plus other musicians.

And how did they follow up their number 1 single? With Mr Turnkey, a song in which they expected the listener to feel sympathy for a convicted rapist as he kills himself in prison. Poptastic! Needless to say, they this sank without trace. I’m almost curious to hear such a terrible idea for a single. Almost, but not quite.

Zager and Evans released an eponymous album in 1970, before splitting up after 1971’s Food for the Mind. The one-hit wonders disappeared, though Evans later recorded with Pam Herbert and formed his own label, Fun Records in the late 70s, on which he released new material and re-recorded Zager and Evans songs.

Evans died in April 2018, to no media attention whatsoever, which makes me feel rather sad. I may be highly critical of the song, but he had his time in the spotlight and it should have been noted, however short it may have been. In spring this year, his recordings made it on to eBay after relatives disposed of his estate.

Zager is still alive and builds custom guitars at Zager Guitars in Lincoln, Nebraska.

In the Year 2525 (Exordium and Terminus) remained at number 1 in the UK until 19 September. Also that month, housing charity Shelter released a report on 11 September that claimed up to 3,000,000 people were in need of rehousing due to poor living conditions. And on 16 September, iconic 60s fashion store Biba reopened on Kensington High Street.

Written by: Rick Evans

Producers: Zager & Evans

Weeks at number 1: 3 (30 August-19 September)

274. The Rolling Stones – Honky Tonk Women (1969)

No sooner have we reached the end of the Beatles’ 17 number 1s, than it’s now time to say goodbye to the Rolling Stones. But before we look at the backstory to their eighth and last number 1, it’s time to see what was in the news during their five-week run with Honky Tonk Women.

The day the single usurped Something in the Air, 23 July, saw the debut of BBC Two’s long-running snooker tournament Pot Black. The Beeb had been looking for programmes that could exploit its new colour transmissions, and they struck gold by turning snooker from a minority sport into one of the most popular in the UK. The show ran until 1986, but returned for many specials well into the 21st century.

On 1 August, the pre-decimal halfpenny ceased to be legal tender. The rest of the first half of August’s news was mostly taken up by the start of one of the late-20th-century’s biggest conflicts – The Troubles in Northern Ireland.

The Battle of the Bogside began on 12 August in Derry. The Taoiseach of the Republic of Ireland, Jack Lynch, made a speech the day after the ruins began requesting a United Nations peacekeeping force for Northern Ireland. On 14 August, British troops were deployed to restore order, and by the time they had, eight people had been shot dead, over 750 were injured, and over 400 homes and businesses had been destroyed. It was only the beginning.

Since the Rolling Stones’ triumphant comeback in 1968 with Jumpin’ Jack Flash, they hadn’t released any UK singles, but the album it came from, Beggars Banquet, was a real return to form, and the start of a run of classic LPs. Some of the tracks, including epic opener Sympathy for the Devil, are among the finest rock songs of the late 60s.

In December 1968 they filmed the concert special The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus for the BBC. The line-up included Taj Mahal, the Who, Jethro Tull, Marianne Faithfull and a one-off appearance by supergroup the Dirty Mac, consisting of John Lennon, Yoko Ono, Eric Clapton, Keith Richards and Mitch Mitchell. The Stones withheld the show, believing their appearance to be substandard, though some claim they felt the Who outshone them. It eventually surfaced in 1996, and is worth a watch.

Mick Jagger and Keith Richards holidayed together that Christmas in a ranch in rural Brazil, and while there they became inspired to write their next single. There is not an ounce of Brasilia in either version, but it did bring to mind Americana, country and roots. Originally they had in mind the version that surfaced on next album Let It Bleed. Country Honk was, as the name implies, a country version of Honky Tonk Women, with slightly different lyrics (the first verse is set in Jackson, Mississippi rather than Memphis, Tennessee) and Byron Berline on fiddle.

Multi-instrumentalist Brian Jones featured on the demos for this track, recorded that March. It would be the last material he performed on. By the time the band regrouped in June, they had met with Jones at his home. Increasingly paranoid and drug-addled, the former bandleader had been contributing less and less, and couldn’t compete with Jagger and Richards’ growing control any more. He left the band.

Seeking a replacement, their keyboardist Ian Stewart and bluesmith John Mayall recommended a 20-year-old guitarist called Mick Taylor to Jagger. He had replaced Peter Green in John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers in 1967 when he left to form Fleetwood Mac. The Stones invited Taylor to a session, and he believed he was only wanted as a session musician, but they were impressed and he was asked to continue. He overdubbed guitar on to Country Honk and the new electric version they were planning to release as a single, called Honky Tonk Women.

Richards later claimed that Taylor had transformed the single, but the newest member of the group insisted his contribution was minimal. Whatever he actually did, he’s listed with Richards as lead guitarist. Richards also provided the rowdy backing vocals and rhythm guitar. Along with the usual roles for the rest of the band, the single featured backing vocals from Reparata and the Deltrons, who had a hit in 1968 with Captain of Your Ship, Nanette Workman (slyly credited as ‘Nanette Newman’) and Doris Troy, later to be best known for her orgasmic wailing on Pink Floyd’s The Great Gig in the Sky. Steve Gregory and Bud Beadle duetted on saxophones, and producer Jimmy Miller was the man behind the cowbell.

The Rolling Stones really know how to write brilliant intros, and Honky Tonk Women is one of their most memorable, thanks to the cowbell, and Watts’ raunchy drumbeat. Jagger begins to tell his tales of sexual conquest in a louche drawl, boasting about picking up a ‘gin soaked bar-room queen in Memphis.’ They’re pretty risqué lyrics for the day, with references to ‘a ride’ and laying divorcees, but Jagger gets around it by ramping up the accent to a comical degree, making some of the words almost intelligible. I love the lyric ‘she blew my nose and then she blew my mind’.

Musically, it’s not too adventurous, throwaway even. It’s not up to the standard of most of their number 1s, and sees the start of the Rolling Stones settling into their role as the ultimate good-time rock’n’roll band. Only two verses and it’s over in under three minutes, but it’s still a lot of fun.

But just before its release, the fun stopped for Brian Jones. He was found dead in his swimming pool on 3 July. Death by misadventure was the official reason, but his liver and heart were both enlarged from his pursuit of drink and drugs. He was 27, that infamous age that many rock stars have died at.

The Stones were scheduled to perform a free televised concert at Hyde Park on 5 July. Planned in part to unveil their new guitarist, it became a wake for Jones. In an example of pure black comedy, butterflies were let out into the crowd, but many had died, so they were simply banged out of boxes onto the floor as the band got started. It’s what Jones probably wouldn’t have wanted.

The Rolling Stones were the last British band to have a number 1 in the 60s. They have never topped the singles charts since, and it’s unlikely they will until perhaps Jagger or Richards die… so, some time in the 31st century, perhaps. The classic albums kept coming for a while though, with Let It Bleed their final LP of the 60s, released 5 December, featuring Gimme Shelter and You Can’t Always Get What You Want.

Unfortunately the 60s came to a tragic end for the Stones. A day after its release they headlined the Altamont Free Concert. It was a bad idea to have the Hells Angels providing security, and several scuffles between them and the crowd ended with armed fan Meredith Hunter stabbed and beaten to death, during, of all songs, Sympathy for the Devil.

The 70s began with the band having left Decca records to set up Rolling Stones Records. The first material released, Sticky Fingers (1971), contained Brown Sugar and Wild Horses. They became tax exiles, moved to France and recorded the double album Exile on Main Street. Raw and ragged, it’s considered by many to be their last classic, as the rest of the 70s saw commercial success but lukewarm reviews from critics, starting with Goat Head’s Soup in 1973.

Miller departed as producer, and then Taylor left after the release of the Glimmer Twins-produced It’s Only Rock’n’Roll in 1974. Faces guitarist Ronnie Wood had contributed to the title track, but his group were still taken by surprise when he took up an offer to join the Rolling Stones. But frustrations over numerous drug offences affecting the group’s abilities to tour meant this wasn’t the best period for Wood to be joining them.

Fortunately things picked up again in 1978 with the release of Some Girls, which featured their last classic, the disco-influenced Miss You. Despite the Stones being on top again, a rift developed between Jagger and Richards. Nevertheless, 1981’s album of outtakes contained Start Me Up, another huge hit.

Jagger became too busy with a solo album to concentrate much on the Rolling Stones, and their output suffered, like many 60s/70s legends, from substandard material recorded with bombastic production techniques.

In 1985 Jagger had a number 1 single with David Bowie for Live Aid, featuring one of the stupidest, most unintentionally hilarious videos of all time. I am of course referring to Dancing in the Street. That same year saw the death of the Stones’ keyboardist Ian Stewart, who had been there from the start. With both of the Glimmer Twins releasing solo albums, these were lean years for the Rolling Stones.

They were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1989, along with Jones, Stewart and Taylor, and this helped thaw the frosty relationship of Jagger and Richard, who put aside their differences and began work on their first album in three years, Steel Wheels. It was the best they’d made in a while, though nowhere near their best, which was now a distant memory.

Bassist Bill Wyman decided to leave in 1991, but the news was kept secret until 1993. He went on to form Bill Wyman’s Rhythm Kings. We won’t go into his love life, because as we all know, he’s on extremely dodgy ground there. Darryl Jones has been their bassist ever since, yet for some reason he isn’t given recognition as a ‘full’ member of the band. I just hope it has nothing to do with the colour of his skin. And that isn’t an insinuation, just a genuine hope.

The Stones took a break after touring and then released Voodoo Lounge in 1994, which was their most critically acclaimed in years, followed in quick succession by the half-decent Stripped (1995). They brought the 90s to a close with Bridges to Babylon (1997).

Their last album of original material to date, A Bigger Bang, was released in 2005. 2012 marked the 50th anniversary of the band’s formation, so the Stones embarked on yet another mammoth tour off the back of their 1000th greatest hits compilation.

In 2013 Michael Eavis finally got his wish and they headlined the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury Festival. As I’ve mentioned before on this blog, I was lucky enough to be there, and they surpassed my expectations, playing a set of classic material. What really stood out was how much they seemed to relish the opportunity. They didn’t phone their set home, they attacked it with all the energy of a band more than half their age. It’s truly incredible how they can still have so much passion, really.

It’s a long, long time since the Rolling Stones were known as the most dangerous band in the world. You could argue they are just a money-spinning brand now, and to be fair, I’ve made that argument before. But seeing them at Glastonbury changed my opinion. Granted, we haven’t needed most of their recorded output since the early 80s, but it became clear to me that they actually get a kick out of still performing, even after all this time. Jagger recently had heart surgery, and is back on stage after a few months. The man is 75. He must have sold his soul to the devil to carry on the way he is. Look at Keith. He definitely has.

Their tally for number 1 singles may not match the Beatles or Elvis Presley , but the Rolling Stones outlasted them, through drug addictions, prison and deaths. They will come to an end one day though, and it may take that for people to realise not only that the Glimmer Twins were once one of the most talented songwriting teams of all time, but that we have lived through a true musical phenomenon, the like of which we’ll never see again.

Written by: Mick Jagger & Keith Richards

Producer: Jimmy Miller

Weeks at number 1: 5 (23 July-29 August)

Births:

Paralympian Tanni Grey-Thompson – 26 July
Bounty hunter Domino Harvey – 7 August
Joe Swail – Northern Irish snooker player – 29 August

Deaths:

Physicist Cecil Frank Powell – 9 August
Novelist Ivy Compton-Burnett – 27 August