While I only usually mention UK events within this blog, 50 years ago to the day I am typing this, man first set foot on the moon. The reason I mention news from another planet? Because it seems very appropriate that the number 1 at the time was Something in the Air, by one-hit wonders Thunderclap Newman.
There was indeed something in the air in July 1969, but it wasn’t just Apollo 11. The peace and love espoused by hippies in the mid-60s had mutated into frustration over Vietnam and the old world order. 1968 had seen protests taking place in the UK, the US, and France, among other countries. Groups such as Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin’s Yippies in the US would talk of revolution, and in the UK, left-wingers wanted reforms on drugs, abortion, gender roles… they wanted change. John Lennon, before going solo and becoming a full-blown ‘working class hero’, had written of his indecision over these matters in the 1968 B-side to Hey Jude, Revolution.
At around the same time, a man named John ‘Speedy’ Keen had been turning his thoughts into a call-to-arms, also called Revolution. Keen shared a flat with The Who guitarist and songwriter Pete Townshend, and he worked as their chauffeur. He had been in a few bands before then, was adept at several instruments, and dabbled in songwriting, most famously at that point by writing one of my favourite songs by The Who, the psychedelic rocker Armenia City in the Sky, which became the opening track of their classic LP, The Who Sell Out (1967). This was the only song written for The Who by a non-member, so the band, particularly Townshend, clearly thought he had potential. He also had a pretty big nose, like him, so they were kindred spirits.
Townshend had been branching out from The Who at the time (he had already helped The Crazy World of Arthur Brown with their debut LP and number 1 single, Fire), and was looking for a way to showcase Keen’s songs. He contacted a teenage guitarist called Jimmy McCulloch, whose band One in a Million supported The Who in 1967 (he was only 14 at the time), and an eccentric keyboard player called Andy ‘Thunderclap’ Newman, who had earned his nickname due to his idiosyncratic playing style. Newman was still working for the General Post Office as a telephone engineer when the trio met at Townshend’s home studio for the first time around Christmas 1968.
They became Thunderclap Newman, with Keen on vocals and drums, McCulloch on guitar, Newman on piano and Townshend producing and performing bass under the pseudonym Bijou Drains. Among the material they worked on was Keen’s song of revolution, now renamed to avoid confusion.
You could argue that the power of Something in the Air has been reduced over the years due to its overuse in TV and films. Yet despite its lazy use as the soundtrack to vintage footage of hippies and protests, and particularly its appearances in several advertising campaigns, I have never once tired of it. Even when it was on practically every advert break when used by TalkTalk, sponsors of Big Brother on Channel 4 one summer, I still loved it.
Keen’s lyrics, and vocal performance signal a very British type of revolution. He isn’t blessed with the best voice, but its the perfect fit for his reticent lyrics. Close inspection reveals its actually quite critical of the hippy movement. ‘The revolution’s here’, but they’re not ready yet (‘We’ve got to get together, sooner or later’)… is everyone too stoned to sort their shit out? Sounds likely, especially when he sings ‘We have got to get it together’ in the refrain.
Then after another attempt to rouse the troops, things get weird. In a very Beatlesque move, the mood changes completely, and we’re treated to a long heavy-handed piano solo from Newman. Only fair, when the band is named after him, really. Although this section breaks the mood, I consider it a good thing. Nothing wrong with a taste of the unexpected in pop music. And only a fool could not be moved by the way the song moves up a gear as it reaches the rousing finale, returning to Keen singing ‘Hand out the arms and ammo, we’re going to blast our way through here’ and the appearance of stirring strings.
Becoming the last act to knock The Beatles from number 1, and topping the charts while Neil Armstrong made one giant leap for humankind… what a time to be alive. The Who never had a number 1 single, so it must have been a proud moment for Townshend.
The popularity of their debut single took Thunderclap Newman by surprise. Having had no plans to tour, they now needed to augment their line-up for live shows supporting rock band Deep Purple, and they couldn’t rely on Bijou Drains to play the bass. Jim Pitman-Avery replaced him, and McCulloch’s older brother Jack became their drummer so Keen could concentrate on singing and rhythm guitar.
Following the tour they recorded their sole album, the critically acclaimed but long-forgotten Hollywood Dream, which closed with a slightly different version of Something in the Air. Released in October 1970, they had left it too late to capitalise on their success, and none of its singles charted.
In January 1971 the band found a new line-up with Australian musicians Ronnie Peel on bass and Roger Felice on drums – but not for long. The core trio simply didn’t gel personally, and Thunderclap Newman split up on April 10.
Keen tried his hand at solo stardom and released a couple of albums in the 70s. By 1976 he realised it wasn’t going to happen and he moved into production, working with Johnny Thunders and The Heartbreakers. He then produced Motörhead’s eponymous debut album in 1977, and even performed with them, before leaving music altogether. In 2002 he was attempting to record a third solo album when he unexpectedly died of a heart attack, aged 56.
McCulloch was even younger when he died. He played with John Mayall and The Bluesbreakers following the split, then helped Harry Nilsson, among others, as a session musician. After a stint with Stone the Crows and contributing to Keen’s first solo album, Previous Convictions in 1973, he joined Wings in 1974, making his debut on the single Junior’s Farm.
McCulloch left Paul McCartney’s band in September 1977, before their mammoth-selling Christmas number 1, Mull of Kintyre, to join the reformed Small Faces, but they soon split and he and their drummer Kenney Jones formed a new, short-lived band, Wild Horses, then in 1979 he joined The Dukes. That September, his body was discovered in his flat by his brother. He had died of heart failure due to morphine and alcohol poisoning, aged only 26.
Which leaves only Newman. In 1971 he recorded a solo album, Rainbow, and worked with ex-Bonzo Dog Band member Roger Ruskin Spear. Then he left music and worked as an electrician, until he decided to begin a new version of Thunderclap Newman in 2010. Featuring Townshend’s nephew Josh and Big Country’s drummer Mark Brzezicki, they recorded a new album, Beyond Hollywood, and played at the Isle of Wight Festival in 2012. Newman died in 2016, aged 73.
There’s a pretty good version of Something in the Air out there, by Elbow, recorded in 2002 for War Child, but it’s not a patch on the original. This one-hit wonder is a rock classic and one of my favourite songs of 1969.
Written by: Speedy Keen
Producer: Pete Townshend
Weeks at number 1: 3 (2-22 July)
The Rolling Stones guitarist Brian Jones – 3 July
3 July: Fans of The Rolling Stones, and the band themselves, were shocked to hear on 3 July that recently departed band member Brian Jones had died (more on that next time).
10 July: The trimaran Teignmouth Electron sailing vessel was found empty and drifting in the mid-Atlantic. It belonged to Donald Crowhurst, British businessman and amateur sailor. He had been taking part in the Sunday Times Golden Globe round-the-world race, in an attempt to save his failing business. Nothing had been heard from him since 1 July, and up to that point, he had been falsifying his position in the race. Once his vessel had been investigated, it began to look as though Crowhurst had suffered a breakdown due to his guilt, and quite likely had committed suicide by jumping into the sea.
12 July: Tony Jacklin, the most successful British golfer of his generation, won the Open Championship.