One of the many ways The Beatles changed popular music was by writing their own singles. They wanted to become one of the great songwriting duos, and were also very generous in giving their material away to other artists to record. Much is made of the supposed Beatles-Rolling Stones rivalry, but it’s often forgotten that the Stones’ second single was a cover of Lennon and McCartney’s I Wanna Be Your Man. Another great example is Billy J Kramer, who (with The Dakotas) took Bad to Me to number 1.
Born William Howard Ashton in Bootle, Lancashire on 19 August 1943, Kramer had been an engineering apprentice for British Railways, who played rhythm guitar in a band part-time, before switching to vocals. His stage surname came about by a random search in a phone book, but it was Lennon who suggested adding the ‘J’, simply to add some toughness.
With his charisma and good looks, Kramer soon got noticed by Brian Epstein, and he was added to his ever-expanding stable of acts. His then-backing group, The Coasters (not to be confused with the US soul group – what is it with UK bands stealing the names of US soul acts? See the Drifters/the Shadows) weren’t as keen to turn professional, so Epstein matched Kramer with Manchester foursome The Dakotas, who were then backing Pete MacLaine.
The band had formed in 1960, and took their name from their manager’s unusual request to appear at a booking dressed as American Indians. By 1963 they consisted of rhythm guitarist Robin MacDonald, drummer Tony Bookbinder (Elkie Brooks’ brother), bassist Ian Fraser and lead guitarist Mike Maxfield.
The Dakotas were canny lads, and in the hope of emulating The Shadows, they refused to assist Kramer unless they were also given a recording contract to release instrumentals, and this is why it’s ‘Billy J Kramer with The Dakotas’ not ‘Billy J Kramer and The Dakotas’.
Kramer and co had an immediate hit on their hands with their debut single, a cover of McCartney and Lennon’s Do You Want to Know a Secret? which they had given to George Harrison to sing on their debut album (it had been turned down by Shane Fenton, later to become Alvin Stardust). This new cover actually mirrored The Beatles’ second single, Please Please Me, in that it went to number 1 on the NME chart, but narrowly missed out on the Record Retailer‘s version due to From Me to You. Therefore it was this second single, Bad to Me, which officially became their first number 1.
Depending on which John Lennon interview you believe, he either wrote this song on his own for Kramer while holidaying in Spain, or he and McCartney did so in the back of a van. The Beatles never released a version of their own, but they did demo and record it, and the demo surfaced on the 2013 compilation The Beatles Bootleg Recordings 1963. Paul was on hand for the recording that made it to number 1. The B-side, I Call Your Name, was another McCartney/Lennon composition, that the Beatles did eventually release a version of, on the Long Tall Sally EP in 1964.
Bad to Me has that classic early Beatles sound, with the only difference being Kramer’s comparatively smooth vocal. No offence to Kramer, but it is missing those raw harmonies of Lennon, McCartney and Harrison. The band do a perfectly respectable job, though, with a gentle acoustic opening turning into a Merseybeat catchy chorus with chiming guitar and pretty clever wordplay. Pretty good, all in all. Kramer wisely continued to live in the shadow of The Beatles and soak up some of their fame for a while longer.
Written by: Paul McCartney & John Lennon
Producer: George Martin
Weeks at number 1: 3 (22 August-11 September)
DJ Paul Oakenfold – 30 August
Actor Mark Strong – 30 August
Poet Louis MacNeice – 3 September
5 September: The Profumo affair took another turn during Bad to Me‘s three-week reign, with model and showgirl Christine Keeler arrested for perjury. On 6 December she found herself sentenced to nine months in prison.