266. Amen Corner – (If Paradise Is) Half as Nice (1969)

17 years after the New Musical Express began the first singles chart, an official version finally appeared, the week commencing 12 February 1969. The BBC and Record Retailer (the music industry publication whose chart tends to be recognised as ‘official’ from 1960 up to this point) commissioned the British Market Research Bureau to compile it, therefore ending arguments over which chart people should follow. The BMRB’s first chart was compiled from postal returns from sales logs of 250 shops, randomly chosen from a pool of approximately 6,000. The logs were then translated into punch cards which would be translated by a computer. The computer would compile the chart each Monday, and the BBC were informed of the top 50 each Tuesday, in time for it to be announced on Johnnie Walker’s Radio 1 afternoon show.

This means (I think) that the first 100% ‘official’ UK number 1 single was Amen Corner’s (If Paradise Is) Half as Nice. Which is the most interesting thing about this minor blog entry.

This Welsh seven-piece (okay, that’s pretty unusual, too) had formed in Cardiff in late 1966. They consisted of singer Andy Fairweather Low, guitarist Neil Jones, saxophonist Allan Jones, keyboardist Derek ‘Blue’ Weaver and tenor saxophonist Mike Smith, with bassist Clive Taylor and drummer Dennis Byron also performing backing vocals.

They took their name from The Amen Corner, a weekly US soul music night at Cardiff’s Victoria Ballroom each Sunday. Originally Amen Corner performed blues and jazz-influenced tunes, but after signing with Deram Records they were steered towards a more commercial sound. Nevertheless their debut single was a cover of blues track Gin House Blues, which went in at number 12.

It was their third single in 1968 that really caught the public eye. Their version of the Outsiders’ Bend Me, Shape Me became the most popular UK release, getting all the way to number three. That year they also released debut album Round Amen Corner. At the end of 1968 they jumped ship to Immediate Records, and recorded (If Paradise Is) Half As Nice.

Their fifth single was originally written by influential Italian singer-songwriter Lucio Battisti for La Ragazza 77, aka Ambra Borelli. Il paradiso della vita translated as ‘The paradise of the life’. Jack Fishman translated it into English and renamed it to the song we know today. It was originally offered to the Tremeloes, who rejected it, and the Dave Clark Five showed an interest, but Amen Corner took it to number 1.

(If Paradise Is) Half As Nice peaks far too soon. The ‘la la la’ intro is lovely, and jumping into a memorable chorus early on often guarantees success, but it’s downhill after that first blast of brass. At least, I think it is. I can’t really remember, and that’s my point, really. Fairweather Low’s vocal is reedy and rather weak, and gets irritating quickly. He starts so high he’s soon straining and doesn’t know where to go. Also, I take issue with the chorus lyrics. ‘If paradise is half as nice as heaven that you take me to/Who needs paradise, I’d rather have you’. Well, yes, of course you would, it’s a no-brainer isn’t it? Perhaps the kids thought it would make a nice Valentines Day present?

A live album, The National Welsh Coast Live Explosion Company followed, and a single by Roy Wood from the Move, Hello Susie, which reached number four, but Amen Corner wouldn’t make it far into 1970. They recorded one last album, Farewell to the Real Magnificent Seven featuring their final (only their sixth) single, a cover of the Beatles’ Get Back, which failed to chart in 1969.

Saxophonists Jones and Smith left, and the rest of the band became Fair Weather, scoring a hit in 1970 with Natural Sinner. However, Weaver left to replace Rick Wakeman in the Strawbs in 1971, so they soon split.

Fairweather Low had a solo career, and his single Wide Eyed and Legless reached the top ten in 1975. From there, he has featured as a guitarist on live tours for Eric Clapton and Roger Waters.

Weaver went from the Strawbs to Mott the Hoople, and then the Bee Gees, joining Byron who was at that point their drummer. Jones became a photographer, whose work featured in weeklies the New Musical Express and Melody Maker, before becoming Cardiff City Council’s official photographer. He died of cancer in June 2018, aged 70.

Written by: Lucio Battisti/Jack Fishman (English lyrics)

Producer: Shel Talmy

Weeks at number 1: 2 (12-25 February)

Births:

Long jumper Stewart Faulkner – 19 February
Manic Street Preachers singer and guitarist James Dean Bradfield – 21 February

Deaths:

Comedian Kenneth Horne – 14 February

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