231. Nancy Sinatra and Frank Sinatra – Somethin’ Stupid (1967)

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Following Frank Sinatra’s ‘piece of shit’ hit Strangers in the Night, he collaborated with Brazilian composer Antônio Carlos Jobim on the album Francis Albert Sinatra & Antônio Carlos Jobim, and then recorded solo album The World We Knew. Somethin’ Stupid came out as a single just beforehand. This famous duet became known as the ‘incest song’ due to his daughter Nancy taking on the female vocals. She hadn’t maintained the level of success granted by her 1966 number 1, the iconic These Boots Are Made for Walkin’, by her producer Lee Hazelwood.

Somethin’ Stupid started life as a duet between its writer, folk singer C Carson Parks and his wife Gaile Foote, recorded in 1966 as Carson and Gaile. Parks’s younger brother was Van Dyke Parks, who worked on the Beach Boys’ ill-fated SMiLE. It was Ol’ Blue Eyes’ idea for he and Nancy to record it, and he played Carson and Gaile’s version to Hazelwood. The producer later recalled he told Frank that if he didn’t record it with Nancy, he’d have a go himself. Frank told him to book them in.

Recorded on 1 February, Frank had finished Francis Albert Sinatra & Antônio Carlos Jobim earlier that day when it came to recording his vocal. He was joined in the studio by the Wrecking Crew, with the outfit’s Billy Strange making the arrangement. Jimmy Bowen, who had brought Hazlewood and Nancy together, helped Hazelwood on production duties.

It’s a strange beast isn’t it? Had Frank listened to the lyrics before recording? Did he realise by getting his daughter involved it would give the lyrics a seedy meaning? From what little I know of Hazelwood, I imagine he knew how it would look only too well, which made it all the more appealing to him. As for Nancy, well in an interview for The Guardian in 2013, she said she thought it was ‘very sweet’ that people think it’s about incest…?

When you consider how he dominates proceedings over Nancy, who seems so meek by comparison to the strong and sexy image she portrayed on These Boots Are Made for Walkin’, you have to wonder why he didn’t just make it a solo record, considering the whole point of the song is seemingly that a man is friends with a woman but blows it by revealing his feelings go deeper.

It’s not a bad record, it’s pretty cute, and the lyrics are charming enough, but if you’re not in the mood to hear it, you can find yourself rather irritated by how twee it is. Or perhaps this is because I now can’t help but be reminded of the pointless retread by Robbie Williams and Nicole Kidman, who made it a Christmas number 1 in 2001. I have mixed feelings about Robbie Williams, but that whole attempt at being a crooner really irked me. His smug face was everywhere. Anyway, I digress, I do like the fact Frank is singing the high notes and Nancy the low, it’s a nice touch.

Neither Sinatra would have a UK number 1 again, but as we know, Frank’s career didn’t exactly dwindle. In 1968 Paul Anka, the man behind Diana, wrote English lyrics to Comme d’habitude and called it My Way. David Bowie tried and failed, but eventually came up with Life on Mars?, so it was a win-win situation.

In 1971, Frank decided to retire, having become bored by performing the same old songs night after night. He returned as soon as 1973 though, with the comeback album Ol’ Blue Eyes Is Back. Soon he was back touring the world again. Despite run-ins with the media (he caused uproar by describing Australian journalists as ‘bums, parasites, fags, and buck-and-a-half hookers’), he was as popular as ever.

In 1980 he released his first LP in six years. Trilogy: Past Present Future was a triple album, and it featured New York, New York. I always assumed this came from the 50s or 60s, but there it was, relatively late in his career. He caused controversy the following year by performing in Sun City, breaking the cultural boycott of South Africa during apartheid. Despite this, and some awful racist jokes aimed at fellow Rat Pack mem ber Sammy Davis Jr, Frank was very sympathetic to black Americans. He played a major role in the desegragation of hotels and casinos in Nevada in the 50s and 60s and played a benefit concert for Martin Luther King. It seems he became more conservative the older he got – often the case.

His views on race are a prime example of a complex character – at times he was horribly homophobic and suffered wild mood swings, from elation to crippling depression. He had an awful temper, yet was also extremely generous.

Frank’s voice began to suffer in the early 80s, but his audiences didn’t care. His alternative career in film reached its high point when he starred in Cannonball Run II in 1984. Okay, I’m being sarcastic, but I love those films and won’t have a bad word said about them. 1988 saw him reunite with Davis Jr and Dean Martin to embark on Rat Pack Reunion Tour. But Martin pulled out halfway through, and they never spoke again.

As the 90s arrived he was in his seventies, and the light in Ol’ Blue Eyes was fading, but his best-selling album came in 1993. Duets and its sequel consisted of remakes of his classic songs with artists including Aretha Frankin, Bono, Willie Nelson and his son, Frank Sinatra Jr. In 1995 he turned 80, and the Empire State Building was bathed in blue light in celebration and a star-studded concert took place, with Frank singing New York, New York one final time. Plagued by ill health including dementia and bladder cancer, he died of a heart attack aged 82 on 14 May 1998.

One of the 20th century’s giants of music, film and television, a true larger-than-life character, Frank Sinatra was buried in a blue suit with a bottle of Jack Daniel’s and a pack of cigarettes. Pretty cool. Reading into his life reveals plenty of examples of him not being so cool, but he was of a different era and had a harsh upbringing. Although easy listening is not up there with my favourite genres, I get the love for Ol’ Blue Eyes, and there truly was no singer quite like him.

And what of his duet partner and daughter? After Somethin’ Stupid, Nancy Sinatra recorded the theme to the James Bond movie You Only Live Twice that same year. She also continued to work with Hazelwood, and they duetted on psychedelic classic Some Velvet Morning. In 2002 it was covered by Primal Scream, with supermodel Kate Moss taking on Nancy’s part.

She left her father’s record label Reprise in 1971, and had a big hit in the UK when she duetted with Hazelwood again on Did You Ever? By the middle of that decade she slowed down her music and acting to concentrate on raising a family.

Nancy caused a stir in 1995 by agreeing to pose for Playboy, aged 54. She said her father was proud – which won’t help with the incest rumours I guess. 2002 saw her perform in the UK for the first time for the BBC. Two years later she released an eponymous album of collaborations with acts including U2, Jarvis Cocker and Sonic Youth. She made a decent cover of Morrissey’s Let Me Kiss You, released as a single (the two were old neighbours). She and Frank Jr also continued the family’s Mob connections by appearing as themselves in separate episodes of one of the greatest TV dramas of all time – HBO’s The Sopranos. Nancy (with the Laughing Face) is 78, and remains one of the coolest members of one of the world’s coolest families.

Written by: C Carson Parks

Producer: Jimmy Bowen & Lee Hazelwood

Weeks at number 1: 2 (13-26 April) 

Births:

The Darkness bassist Frankie Poullain – 5 April
Olympic sprinter Sandra Douglas – 22 April 
Actress Marianne Jean-Baptiste – 26 April

 

230. Engelbert Humperdinck – Release Me (1967)

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Spring, 1967 saw one man sitting atop the charts. For seven weeks Engelbert Humperdinck was number 1 with Release Me. It was the year’s biggest seller, and famously, was the first song to prevent the Beatles from reaching number 1 since 1963. But before I go into that, what else was happening in the UK over those six weeks?

On 4 March the first North Sea gas was pumped ashore at Easington, East Riding. That same day, Queens Park Rangers became the first Third Division side to win the League Cup when they beat West Bromwich Albion 3-2 at Wembley Stadium. Supertanker SS Torrey Canyon ran aground between Land’s End and the Scilly Isles, creating the biggest oil spill in the world at the time, and it remains the biggest in UK history. At the Astoria Theatre in Finsbury Park, London on 31 March, guitar legend Jimi Hendrix set fire to his instrument for the first time. He was taken to hospital afterwards for burns to his hands. As he had superhuman axeman powers, it didn’t put him off doing it time and time again.

Norwell Roberts made history on 3 April, becoming the first black officer for the Metropolitan Police Service. Five days later the Grand National was won by 100-1 outsider Foinavon, and Sandie Shaw became the first singer to have an English-language entry win the Eurovision Song Contest, with Puppet on a String. It would soon become her third and final number 1. And as Humperdinck’s reign finally began to end, Tom Stoppard’s play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead received it’s premier at the Old Vic in London.

So, Release Me. This shouldn’t have come as a surprise to me after blogging so many hits of the time, but it wasn’t Humperdinck’s song originally. It was first written in 1949 by country music singer-songwriters Eddie Harris and Robert Yount, with James Pebworth also receiving a confusing third of the royalties. Confusing, because over the years he used several different pseudonyms that often cropped up on various versions, sometimes even two at once. Harris recorded the first version, but it was Ray Price who made it a hit for the first time in 1954. Then along came Humperdinck. Who was this bizarrely named singer?

It won’t come as a surprise to find out it’s not his real name. He was born Arnold George Dorsey in May 1936. One of ten children, he spent his first decade living in Madras, British India (now Chennai), before the Dorseys moved to the less exotic Leicester. Interested in music from a young age, he learnt the saxophone and would play it in nightclubs, and apparently didn’t attempt to sing live until he was 17, when his friends persuaded him to enter a pub contest. His impression of Jerry Lee Lewis earned him the name Gerry Dorsey, which he used for nearly a decade.

Dorsey’s career was interrupted by National Service, and he made his first recordings after being discharged with Decca Records in 1958. He failed to make his mark.

That all changed in 1965 when he teamed up with his old roommate Gordon Mills. Mills was Tom Jones’s manager, and was the one who came up with his name change. He reckoned he could do the same for Dorsey, and suggested ‘Engelbert Humperdinck’. Humperdinck was a German composer in the 19th century, and among his works was Hansel and Gretel. Quite why Mills thought this would be a reasonable name is unknown to me. At least ‘Tom Jones’ had been in the public eye at the time, having been the name of a big film.

Humperdinck signed a new contract with Decca under his new stage name, and things picked up when he started to do well in Europe, entering the Knokke song contest and having a hit in Belgium with Dommage, Dommage. Around this time he visited German songwriter Bert Kaempfert, and became keen on Strangers in the Night. He recorded it and wanted it released as a single, but Frank Sinatra got there first.

Fortune finally smiled on Humperdinck when Dickie Valentine fell ill and had to miss an appearance on Sunday Night at the London Palladium. He sang Release Me, and had rave reviews. Soon, his recording was at the top of the charts, and it held firm.

I thought that overfamiliarity with Release Me would make listening to it a waste of time, but there were a couple of surprises. For one, it was a lot slower than I remembered, but I think my brain had somehow replaced it with the version used on BBC Two Nineties comedy The Fast Show – a version which at least had some flair. Humperdinck’s version isn’t half dreary to begin with. Charles Blackwell’s production makes it all sound a little too slick, and doesn’t really give off the impression that Humperdinck is dying to move on from his partner (hard to believe it was produced by the man behind Come Outside). But I have to admit I was impressed with his singing in the latter half. He has a great voice, you have to give him that, and he does sound pretty anguished during that final run through the chorus. Apparently Humperdinck didn’t like being referred to as a crooner, because he felt his range was better than that, and I wouldn’t argue with him.

I can’t dislike Release Me as much as many Beatles fans do. Obviously it didn’t deserve to keep Penny Lane/Strawberry Fields Forever from number 1, but it’s by far the worst number 1 I’ve heard, and there’s far worse to come. I like the lyrics too. Although the track is nearly 20 years old by this point, I can’t imagine it was easy to come by songs that hinted at separation and divorce back then. You’re only hearing one side of the argument, true, but you can’t help feeling some degree of empathy.

But, like Tears and Distant Drums in the two years previous, just why did this become so huge? And why does the list of 1967 number 1s feature lots of lengthy stints at the top, and from safer material than the previous few years? I think, perhaps, that things got a little too weird for many record buyers, and particularly the older ones. Whereas many of the number 1s of 1965 and 1966 still had commercial appeal, even if they were breaking new ground too. And so there was a return to the safe, slick world of easy listening and light-entertainment-style pop. Humperdinck was also a heart-throb, unlike Ken Dodd and Jim Reeves, so that will have helped him somewhat as well.

It wasn’t just Release Me that had a lasting impact – even the B-side left its mark. Ten Guitars was so popular in New Zealand, it’s considered the unofficial national anthem.

And so, as some of the greatest rock bands of all time prepared to release albums that would go down in history as 20th-century classics, an amusingly-named warbler who had struggled for years was the biggest singer in the UK with an easy listening cover of an old country song. And he had another chart-topper before the year was out, too.

Written by: Eddie Miller, James Pebworth & Robert Yount

Producer: Charles Blackwell

Weeks at number 1: 6 (2 March-12 April) *BEST-SELLING SINGLE OF THE YEAR*

Births:

Director Sam Taylor-Johnson – 4 March
Scottish actor John Barrowman – 11 March
Race walker Lisa Langford – 15 March
Lush singer Miki Berenyi – 18 March
Director Kwame Kwei-Armah – 24 March
Presenter Helen Chamberlain – 2 April

Deaths:

Author John Haden Bradley – 6 March 

 

229. Petula Clark – This Is My Song (1967)

1376a1e3ee1b9238b057f177593f5136As winter 1967 drew to a close, Britain’s second Polaris nuclear submarine HMS Renown was launched at Birkenhead on 25 February. The following day, non-league footballer Tony Allden died in a freak accident. While playing for Birmingham-based Highgate United, he was struck by a bolt of lightning. Three other players were also hit, but somehow survived. The day after, Britain’s hopes for entry into the EEC were given support by the Dutch government.  1 March saw the opening of popular concert venue Queen Elizabeth Hall in London.

Ruling the singles chart, for the first time in six years, was one of the biggest female singers of the decade, Petula Clark. The music scene had changed several times over since Sailor was number 1, but Clark had soldiered on throughout. Her follow-ups, Romeo and My Friend the Sea, entered the top ten later that year. Being multilingual, she had hits in France with Ya Ya Twist and Chariot during 1962. Around this time she was also given the song Un Enfant by Jacques Brel – one of the few artists to have the honour.

By the time we reach 1964, she had moved into soundtracks, having moderate success with A Couteaux Tirés, in which she also starred, and was on This Is Your Life for the first of three appearances. At her home in France she recieved a visit from her composer Tony Hatch. Having recently been to New York, he played Clark some chords from an incomplete song he was working on. She was very keen, and said if he could come up with some lyrics as good as the melody, she’d record it. That song was Downtown. Her most famous track, a sophisticated slice of classic 1960s pop, was a hit all over the world, and reached number 1 in the US, but missed out on the Christmas number 1 here due to I Feel Fine by the Beatles.

She was now an established star in the US, but back at home she had varying degrees of success. However, My Love reached number four in 1965, and I Couldn’t Live Without Your Love was number six in 1966. As 1967 began, fortune smiled on Clark once more,

In 1966, legendary comedian Charlie Chaplin was making A Countess from Hong Kong (1967). Starring Marlon Brando, it was the final film that Chaplin, wrote, directed, produced and scored. However his plan to have Al Jolson singing This Is My Song had hit a snag. Jolson had died in 1950 – a fact Chaplin refused to believe until somebody showed him a photo of his gravestone. Who could replace him? Chaplin remembered that Clark had a house near him in Switzerland. Neither Clark nor Hatch wanted to record it. They understandably found the lyrics simplistic and old-fashioned. To be fair to Chaplin, this was deliberate. The movie was a throwback to the 30s, hence him wanting Jolson to record it. Hatch declined but Clark eventually relented, recording it in English, French, German and Italian. She had asked Chaplin to consider some new English lyrics, but he refused. To her horror, she discovered Pye Records were going to release it as a single. The last thing she expected was to reach number 1.

And nor can you blame her. Poor Clark, she didn’t like either of her number 1s, and neither do I, really. They’re nowhere near the quality of Downtown. Opening with what sound like mandolins, This Is My Song features, like so many other 60s number 1s, members of the Wrecking Crew as the band. Her twin vocals are strong, but combined they’re too warbly. The words are indeed forgettable – the intro rhymes ‘light’ with ‘bright’ and ‘blue’ with ‘you’. The whole thing sounds rather laboured, like nobody’s heart was really in it. It was dated then and is even more so now. It’s a curio really, rarely heard and only famous now because Chaplin was the writer. Also, am I the only person that hears a similarity between this and the 1982 Christmas number 1, Save Your Love?

Interestingly, Harry Secombe recorded a version at the same time, which reached number two in the charts, before Clark overtook him. He had to re-record his singing because he kept bursting into laughter at how bad the lyrics were.

In 1968 Clark and singer Harry Belafonte caused controversy by becoming the first black man and white woman to make physical contact on television, four days after the death of Martin Luther King. For further info, see Sailor further up the page. Also that year she moved back into acting, appearing in Finian’s Rainbow alongside Fred Astaire. She was nominated for a Golden Globe and was Astaire’s final on-screen partner. The following year she appeared alongside Peter O’Toole in Goodbye, Mr Chips. She also ended up singing backing vocals on John Lennon’s debut solo single. Clarke had visited him during a bed-in with Yoko Ono and before long she was among the singers on Plastic Ono Band’s Give Peace a Chance.

In the early-to-mid-70s she had considerable success with her music and TV appearances on both sides of the Atlantic, but by the middle of the decade she scaled back her career to concentrate on her family. Her children urged her to return to the stage, which she had avoided since 1954. In 1981 she starred as Maria Von Trapp in the West End production of The Sound of Music. She was so good in the role, the real-life Von Trapp proclaimed her to be the best version ever. Her theatre work continued throughout the 80s, along with an updated version of Downtown in 1988.

Ten years later Clark was made a CBE, and in 2000 she toured a one-woman show around the globe, performing songs and anecdotes. 2006 saw the transmission of a BBC Four documentary, Petula Clark: Blue Lady, and in 2013 she released the album Lost in You, featuring a cover of Gnarls Barkley’s Crazy and yet another version of Downtown. Her latest English-language album was 2017’s Living for Today, and only last year she released the French-Canadian album Vu d’ici. Now 86, she shows no signs of slowing down.

Written by: Charlie Chaplin

Producer: Ernie Freeman

Weeks at number 1: 2 (16 February-1 March) 

Births:

Politician Ed Balls – 25 February

Designer Jonathan Ive – 27 February 

228. The Monkees – I’m a Believer (1967)

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1967! The Summer of Love! Hippies! And Milton Keynes! Yes, on 23 January, this village in northern Buckinghamshire was formally designated as a new town. Over the next few decades it became Britain’s largest of its kind. Three days later Parliament amounted it would nationalise 90% of the British steel industry.

On 3 February, eccentric genius producer Joe Meek killed himself – you can read more about that whole sorry tale here.

6 February saw Soviet Union Premier Alexei Kosygin arriving in the UK for an eight-day visit, with a visit the Queen thrown in too. The following day the British National Front was founded by South African AK Chesterton.

1967 was a turbulent year for the Rolling Stones, with their troubles beginning on 12 February when police raided the home of Keith Richards. He, Jagger and art dealer Robert Fraser were later charged with possession of drugs.

Enjoying a deservedly lengthy month-long stint at the top of the charts were the Monkees with I’m a Believer. Although I’m a snob when it comes to music, and think the entertainment industry took over the music business to such an extent it stifled creativity and nearly brought about its demise, I have a massive soft spot for the Monkees. In fact it’s not a soft spot – they’re easily one of my favourite groups of the 1960s. And their rise and fall is a fascinating subject.

It’s widely acknowledged that the Monkees were an American attempt at apeing (ho ho) the Beatles, but in fact aspiring filmmaker Bob Rafelson first came up with it back in 1962. I wonder how that would have ended up? In 1964 he was working for the film company Screen Gems and had teamed up with Bert Schneider. They had just formed Raybert Productions when they saw A Hard Day’s Night, and Schneider thought the time might be right to revive his idea. He was right, and Screen Gems snapped up the idea.

Fast forward to May 1965, and Raybert Productions wanted folk-rockers the Lovin’ Spoonful to be their band, but as singer John Sebastian had already signed to make recordings, they had to look elsewhere. And as the plan was for the TV show to feature a pretend band, why limit themselves to just musicians?

Mancunian actor Davy Jones was chosen first. He had appeared in Coronation Street and made waves as the Artful Dodger in the Broadway show Oliver! He just needed a big break, was already signed to Screen Gems, and with his baby-face and sweet demeanour, could easily pass for a Paul McCartney-type. One down.

The other three members were all from the US and came from auditions held later that year. Micky Dolenz, from Los Angeles, California, was also an actor, having appeared as a child in the TV series Circus Boy. He did have some experience of being in a band though, and, importantly, he had a great voice.

Mike Nesmith, from Houston Texas, had been working as a musician since 1963, and had featured in a few bands, as well as performing on his own. His audition showcased a laconic humour and bullish personality, so they now had their John Lennon. Maybe they’d even let him write some tunes?

Last to be chosen was fellow musician Peter Tork, who was part of the Greenwich Village folk scene. Stephen Stills suggested he try out after being rejected himself. Poor Tork, despite being gifted and bright, was soon portraying a bumbling but lovable fool – basically, Ringo Starr in A Hard Day’s Night.

While the auditions went on, Don Krishner was hired to sort out the music for the pilot episode. Kirshner had been instrumental in making Bobby Darin famous, and knew the Brill Building team of songwriters, so seemed like a great choice. But he couldn’t get any interest, so he tried Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart instead. They wrote the theme to the series, and offered up another three songs, so things were looking good, apart from the fact the Monkees couldn’t play anything together, and the plan was to release an album to cash in on the series.

Their eponymous debut album was recorded in June 1966, and by and large the formula was to have one Monkee singing per track, with everything else supplied by session musicians the Wrecking Crew. Debut single Last Train to Clarksville, sounding not dissimilar to Paperback Writer, was released before the show had been aired, and still did pretty well. However, Nesmith wasn’t happy that the actual musicians received no credit on the LP.

The series was a smash as soon as it began in the US that September, and a month later the follow-up was recorded. I’m a Believer had been written and originally recorded by Neil Diamond, then still a struggling Brill Building songwriter. The Monkees version featured Dolenz on vocals, along with, among others, Al Gorgoni on guitar (he had played on Simon and Garfunkel’s Sound of Silence), Buddy Salzman on drums, and that chirpy organ hook at the start and through the choruses came from Stan Free on a Vox Continental.

Nesmith certainly had a point in wanting the Monkees to be responsible for ‘real music’, but all these years later, people still go mad to I’m a Believer, and they don’t care who did what. It’s such a lovely, warm track, that captures how the joy of love at first sight can melt the hardest of hearts. The success of the TV series was in a large part due to the charm of the group, and somehow, no matter who appeared on their recorded output, that charm shone through too, whether by luck or design, or both, I can’t say. The Monkees at their best put their name to 60s pop at its best, and I’m a Believer is among their finest singles. That’s partly down to producer Jeff Barry, who had written many hit singles before then, including Do Wah Diddy Diddy.

The TV series began in the UK on New Year’s Eve 1966, and Monkeemania began soon after when this single climbed the charts. Tensions soon rose though when the band discovered it had been included on their second album, More of the Monkees. They didn’t even know the album existed until it was too late, and were horrified at the track listing and cover image. Nesmith told Melody Maker it was ‘probably the worst album in the history of the world’. Matters came to a head in an argument with Kirshner that resulted in Nesmith threatening to quit before punching a hole in a wall and shouting ‘that could have been your face!’ to a lawyer. Soon after, Kirshner was let go.

And then things got really interesting. The Monkees wrested control of their output, and in February 1967 they began recording their third album Headquarters. For the first and only time of their original run as a band, they performed the tracks pretty much on their own, and had more of a hand in the songwriting, with Chip Douglas from the Turtles on bass and production duties. Largely country-rock-flavoured, Headquarters is a great achievement for a ‘manufactured’ band. It may not be up there with the classic albums of 1967, but it’s a giant leap forward for the foursome. Highlight for me is Micky Dolenz’s noise-fest closer Randy Scouse Git, named after one of Alf Garnett’s favourite outbursts at his son-in-law (played by Tony Blair’s father-in-law, Tony Booth) on BBC One sitcom Till Death Us Do Part. It nearly became their second number 1 too, but stalled at number two against All You Need Is Love.

It’s a shame the Monkees then chose to rely on session musicians again, as I think it sped up their demise. Having said that, they still had more authority over who they worked with, and fourth album Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd, released that November, is just as good, if not better than its predecessor. It featured Gerry Goffin and Carole King’s wonderful and blissful Pleasant Valley Sunday, which had been a single during the Summer of Love. The album featured a Moog synthesizer – Dolenz was one of the first owners of the instrument. Another classic hit single was released as 1967 drew to a close – Daydream Believer, Davy Jones’s finest hour as a singer.

The TV show had been getting weirder, the band were touring as a real unit, alongside the Jimi Hendrix Experience, and they were hanging out with the Beatles. Amazing times for a group who weren’t supposed to be able to play.

1968 wasn’t such a great year, but at least it was interesting. NBC announced they wouldn’t renew the show for a third season in February, and shortly afterwards they released The Birds, the Bees & the Monkees. The band mostly worked alone, with their own team of musicians, making for an eclectic sound. Nesmith fares the best with the low-key psychedelic strum of Tapioca Tundra.

Rafelson and Schneider had it in mind to create a feature film for the Monkees. What the group didn’t know at the start was that their plan was a work of cynical avant-garde genius that would cynically tear apart at the notion of the group. Written by then-unknown actor Jack Nicholson with Rafelson, Head set out to prove that no matter what the band members did to try and break free of their public image, they would always be considered nothing more than a cartoon band, no more real than the Archies, also created in 1968. Head is one of the greatest music films of all time, a technicolour masterpiece with a dark heart. And the soundtrack is just as great. There aren’t many actual songs, but they’re all excellent, especially Goffin and King’s spaced-out Porpoise Song and sweet love song As We Go Along, plus Tork finally gets the spotlight with the fuzzy blast of the marvellously named Long Title: Do I Have to Do This All Over Again? Nesmith always contributed great songs to their albums, but Circle Sky, an impressive blast of acid-country-rock, is one of his best.

In 1969, not long after their disappointing TV special 33⅓ Revolutions Per Monkee, Tork left, and the downhill slide truly began. There were still some great songs, including both tracks on the single Someday Man/Listen to the Band, but things were never the same again. The Monkees Present, released in October, was the last to feature Nesmith. Dolenz and Jones soldiered on with one more album, Changes, released in 1970. It was a new decade, and time to move on.

In the meantime each member had varying degrees of success. Nesmith became a country-rock pioneer and helped invent MTV.  Dolenz moved into acting and directing, and along the way he made UK children’s series Metal Mickey in the 80s. Incidentally, both he and Nesmith auditioned to be the Fonz in Happy Days. Jones went back to mostly acting, and became a popular choice for cameos in US sitcoms. He also became a jockey. Tork was in the public eye the least, but I get the feeling he liked it that way.

There have been a number of reunions, most notably in 1986 when repeats of the series prompted a revival and new 20th anniversary album, minus Nesmith, called Pool It! It’s shockingly bad. A large factor in Nesmith’s reluctance to tour was money. He inherited $25 million when his mother, the inventor of liquid paper, passed away. This meant there was no financial incentive to reunite, so over the years he only got involved again when he really felt like it.

He returned in 1996 when they celebrated their 30th anniversary with Justus, an album featuring the band writing, performing and producing every song. Another poor collection, bar the Circle Sky remake, but not as bad as Pool It! They also reunited for another TV special, but it wasn’t half as clever as it thought it was. Following a tour of the UK, Nesmith left again and relations became strained. In 2010 they reformed for the final time as a quartet, as Jones died of a heart attack in 2012, aged 66.

In 2015, Dolenz and Tork toured together, and the following year they released a new album, Good Times!, to commemorate their 50th anniversary. Nesmith joined in, and Jones appeared too posthumously. With songs by musicians including Weezer’s Rivers Cuomo, XTC’s Andy Partridge and Death Cab for Cutie’s Ben Gibbard, Good Times! was, against all odds, a great listen. Highlight for me was Paul Weller and Noel Gallagher’s Birth of an Accidental Hipster.

This would have been the perfect way to end the Monkees, but, buoyed by the reception to Good Times!, they released an album this past Christmas. Christmas Party features a similar line-up of songwriters, and once again, Jones is exhumed, but its mostly cheesy and Dolenz’s vocals really grate on me. Tork’s contribution was minimal due to illness, with him contributing only a sweet banjo-led version of the traditional Angels We Have Heard on High. Perhaps he knew he hadn’t long, for this was his final contribution to the Monkees. Tork sadly died aged 77 only last week.

The Monkees were certainly not perfect. They could be corny, and recorded some terrible songs at times, particularly those godawful mawkish ballads sung by Jones on the first two albums. But how many groups, put together by the industry, have been able to do what they did, to take over and create better results? They may have been manufactured, but they can’t be compared to, say, the boy bands of the 90s. My issue with Westlife et al isn’t that somebody is telling them what to do, it’s the quality of the material, the cynicism, and the lack of effort. The people behind the Monkees were often craftsmen, and as I said before, in their best material, the charm of Mike, Davy, Micky and Peter shines through, and they could experiment, be far-out, and savage at times (the Sex Pistols even covered (I’m Not Your) Stepping Stone). I’m a Believer is one of their best. I love the Monkees, and I’m not ashamed to admit it.

28 years after it reached number 1, I’m a Believer was nearly a chart-topper for my favourite comedians, Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer. Attempting to repeat the success of Dizzy, recorded with the Wonder Stuff, they teamed up with indie rockers EMF for a great, beefed-up version, and you can see the video here.

Written by: Neil Diamond

Producer: Jeff Barry

Weeks at number 1: 4 (19 January-15 February) 

Births:

Field hockey player Kathryn Johnson – 21 January 
Swimmer Nick Gillingham – 22 January
Actress Olivia d’Abo – 22 January

Deaths:

Producer Joe Meek – 3 February (read more here)
Publisher Victor Gollancz – 8 February

 

227. Tom Jones – Green, Green Grass of Home (1966)

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December 1966: Harry Roberts, John Whitney and John Duddy are sentenced to life for killing three policemen in August on 12 December. Prime Minister Harold Wilson and Rhodesian Prime Minister Ian Smith were in the news throughout the month as they attempted to negotiate the whole independence saga. On 20 December Wilson withdrew all offers and announced that he will only consider independence when a black majority government is installed in Rhodesia. Two days later, a steadfast Smith announced he already considered the country a republic. New Year’s Eve saw thieves steal millions of pounds worth of paintings from Dulwich Art Gallery in London.

And so, after such a stellar year of chart action, we’re back at the Christmas number 1. For the first time since 1962, it isn’t the Beatles, who were working on Strawberry Fields Forever. Holding court as the top of the pops for the whole month, and most of January, was 1966’s best-selling single – Tom Jones’s cover of Green, Green Grass of Home.

Since his last number 1, the storming It’s Not Unusual in 1965, Jones’s popularity had slipped somewhat. Granted, his theme to What’s New Pussycat?, by Bacharach and David, did well, but his theme to the James Bond movie Thunderball wasn’t so popular. His manager Gordon Mills decided a new approach was needed, and steered Jones towards using that deep voice to become a light entertainment-style crooner.

Green, Green Grass of Home had been written by Claude ‘Curly’ Puttman, Jr, and was first made popular by flamboyant country star Porter Wagoner in 1965. Later that year, controversial rock’n’roller Jerry Lee Lewis recorded a version for his album Country Songs for Country Folks, and it was this version that made Tom Jones decide to give it a crack himself. His producer Peter Sullivan weren’t so sure – country wasn’t what they had in mind for Jones, so Les Reed, who had written It’s Not Unusual, arranged the track and took it in an easy listening direction.

Jones recalled in an interview for The Mail on Sunday in 2011 that Lewis was on a UK tour just before the single’s release, and met with Jones. He was bowled over by this new pop version, and told Jones he had a hit on his hands.

It’s an odd one, really. Green, Green Grass of Home is still considered one of Tom Jones’s best songs, and yet it leaves me rather cold. The arrangement is rather dated now, particularly when compared to the previous number 1, Good Vibrations. I think the Beach Boys classic would have made for a much more appropriate song to round the year off. But there’s no accounting for taste. Which leads me onto my next point.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m against the death penalty, but it’s hard to feel sorry for the singer once you know the twist – that he’s behind bars and reminiscing on his hometown before he is hanged. The likelihood here is that this man has done something terrible. An odd choice for Christmas number 1, all in all. I hate the ‘Mary/cherries’ rhyme as well.

Green, Green Grass of Home is a sign of what happens to the charts in 1967. After all this energy, vigour and innovation, things go somewhat downhill. 1967 was a great year for albums, and I used to think that once we got full-blown into the ‘flower power’ era, there would be some wonderful single number 1s. There’s far fewer than I hoped, and more often than not, the fashion sways back towards MOR.

Also that year, Tom Jones performed in Las Vegas for the first time. Like his friend Elvis Presley in the 1970s, his recording output suffered as his live act grew more flamboyant, and it was here he cultivated the sweaty, open shirt image that would make him a figure of fun over the years. There were still hits from time to time though, such as Delilah in 1968. From 1969 to 1971 he presented his own variety show on ITV called This Is Tom Jones. The year it ended he recorded one of my favourite Jones tracks, She’s a Lady, written by Paul Anka and later used to great effect in Terry Gilliam’s adaptation of Hunter S Thompson’s Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas (1998).

By the mid-70s his career had declined and he tried to get more film and TV work, but by the early 80s he was recording country material that failed to chart. The first of his many comebacks came in 1987 when A Boy From Nowhere made it to number two. Then the following year he teamed up with Art of Noise for a smash-hit cover of Prince’s Kiss. Unfortunately, someone missed the point of the original, and changed the lyrics from ‘Women, not girls rule my world’ to ‘Women and girls rule my world’, which sounds a bit seedy to me.

In 1992 he kickstarted the idea of ‘legends’ appearing at Glastonbury Festival, and had cameos on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and The Simpsons the following year. Also in 1993 he was back in the charts with If I Only Knew. I personally find this track hilarious for its opening, in which Jones’s bellow is used to headache-inducing levels. It’s hard not to enjoy it though. 1996 saw him cameo in Tim Burton’s sci-fi comedy movie Mars Attacks. He rounded off the millenium with Reload, an enormously successful collection of covers featuring the stars of the time.

It was around then I got a bit sick of Tom Jones. That bellow was everywhere, from the dodgy duet It’s Cold Outside with Matthews (which takes on new levels of meaning when you read he allegedly banged her over the mixing desk during the recording) to the especially irritating version of Mama Told Me Not to Come with Stereophonics. The biggest hit, Sex Bomb, with Mousse T, long outstayed its welcome. But the Queen loved him and he was given an OBE that year, before being knighted in 2006.

He’s never really gone away since the success of Reload, and is now a national treasure. There’s one more number 1 with which he’s involved, from 2009, so I’ll return to his story then.

Next time then, 1967. Until 18 January though, Green, Green Grass of Home reigned at number 1. So what was happening in the news then? On New Year’s Day, the Queen decided to commemorate England’s World Cup achievement by making manager Alf Ramsey a Sir, and also awarded captain Bobby Moore with an OBE.

3 January saw stop-motion children’s TV favourite Trumpton begin on BBC One, and four days later another classic TV series began on BBC Two – The Forstyte Saga.

On 4 January, motorboat racer Donald Campbell was tragically killed while trying to break his own water speed record attempt on Coniston Water in the Lake District. Footage shows his Bluebird K7 and smash into the water. His body wasn’t found until 2001.

And in the world of politics, the UK entered the first round of negotiations for European Economic Community Membership on 15 January. Three days later, the flamboyant Jeremy Thorpe replaced Jo Grimond as leader of the Liberal Party. He was a popular leader and increased the party’s voting stastics, but controversy would end his leadership early.

Written by: Curly Putman

Producer: Peter Sullivan

Weeks at number 1: 7 (1 December 1966-18 January 1967) *BEST-SELLING SINGLE OF THE YEAR*

Births:

Footballer Dennis Wise – 16 December
Rugby player Martin Bayfield – 21 December
Rugby league player Martin Offiah – 29 December
Comedian Mark Lamarr – 7 January
Actress Emily Watson – 14 January

Deaths:

Land and water speed record breaker Donald Campbell – 4 January 

 

226. The Beach Boys – Good Vibrations (1966)

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We’re nearly at the end of 1966 now, and it’s been great to hear the quality, innovation and strength of so many brilliant number 1 singles. Like 1965, at times it’s been classic after classic. I envy anyone who was young and into pop at the time, it must have been incredible. We may well already be at the peak year of the number 1 singles from 1952 to the present day. And there’s one more classic to cover. One of the best, in fact. There’s certainly an argument that Good Vibrations by the Beach Boys is the high watermark in pop invention. How did they get to this point?

Brian Wilson was born 20 June 1942 in California. Growing up in Hawthorne, by the time he was 16 he was sharing a bedroom with his brothers Dennis (13) and Carl (11). Their father Murry was a pianist, and his appreciation of music rubbed off on his sons, in particular Brian, who would teach his brothers how to sing harmonies. The elder Wilson’s life changed forever that year when he received a reel-to-reel tape recorder for his birthday. Soon he was recording he, his mother Audree Neva and Carl singing, and overdubbing himself on piano, along with Carl and their neighbour David Marks on guitars. Brian began to write songs and through family gatherings got to know his cousin, Mike Love. While attending Hawthorne High School, the duo got to know Al Jardine, and before long the trio, along with Carl and Dennis (who was always the most reluctant to join in), had formed the Pendletones, with a tough taskmaster in Murry as their manager.

Dennis may not have been too fussed about the Pendletones, but it was he who suggested Brian write songs about surfing, as he was the only avid surfer in the group. Brian came up with Surfin’ and he and Love wrote Surfin’ Safari together. The former became their first single, on Candix Records in November 1961. The label wanted to call them the Surfers, but that name had been taken, so they dubbed them the Beach Boys. The release was so successful, Candix couldn’t cope and were made bankrupt, and that New Year’s Eve, the Beach Boys played their first gig.

Six months later they signed with Capitol Records and Surfin’ Safari was their new single and title track of their debut album, released in October. Jardine left the group to become a dentist, to be replaced by Marks.

1963 may have been the year of Beatlemania in the UK, but the Beach Boys were a US phenomenon once third single Surfin’ USA hit the top ten. The album of the same name swiftly followed and they were away. Brian started to begin showing an interest in the studio, choosing to double track their vocals to beef up the sound. The Beach Boys may have seemed like a one-trick pony at the time with their sun-kissed hymns to the surf, but they were certainly prolific, releasing two more albums that year – Surfer Girl and Little Deuce Coupe, and Christmas single Little Saint Nick. Jardine returned, and Marks left a few months later.

1964 was a transitional year, and the British Invasion was a big reason for this. Suddenly surf music was out of fashion. The fact they were signed to the same label as the Beach Boys in the US won’t have helped either. Brian was rattled, and wasn’t as keen on the Fab Four back then, preferring the complex production skills of Phil Spector. Murry was sacked, and Brian hit back with I Get Around, which became their first US number 1. The album that followed, All Summer Long, was meant as a goodbye to the surf sound of old, and the instrumentation was becoming more exotic. The Beach Boys’ Christmas Album rounded off the year, but Brian’s mental state was deteriorating.

1965 began with Wilson announcing his retirement from touring after an anxiety attack. He was replaced by Glenn Campbell, and instead he would concentrate on songwriting and production. This coincided with him developing an interest in drugs. Next album, The Beach Boys Today! in March, featured uptempo tracks on side one, and ballads on two. Brian’s lyrics were now focusing on his neuroses and insecurities. California Girls and Help Me Rhonda featured on Summer Days (And Summer Nights!!). At the end of the year, their live-in-the-studio album Beach Boys’ Party! featured their hit cover of Barbara Ann, and standalone single The Little Girl I Once Knew showcased where they were headed next – Pet Sounds.

Their most famous album, with words from jingle writer Tony Asher, raised the bar both sonically and lyrically, and contained some of their greatest songs – some of the most beautiful songs of all time in fact – namely Wouldn’t It Be Nice, Don’t Talk (Put Your Head on My Shoulder) and especially God Only Knows. A song so good, some friends and I named our club night after it, and some guy called Paul McCartney called it the greatest song of all time. Pet Sounds was released in May 1966, and Brian Wilson was now being hailed as a genius. What the public didn’t know was that he was already at work on a single like no other.

Good Vibrations was inspired by his mother. Andree would talk to Brian about vibrations when he was a child, and it would both fascinate and frighten him at the same time. He played what became the chorus to Asher on the piano to see if he could add some lyrics, but his ideas were discarded. He did however manage to steer Wilson away from calling it Good Vibes, wisely suggesting that ‘Vibrations’ wouldn’t date. Van Dyke Parks, who worked on the ill-fated SMiLE album, was also asked, but declined. Although the track was still in its formative stages, Brian knew he wanted an Electro-Theremin from its early stages. It’s not a true theremin as such – the instrument is controlled by a knob, rather than hovering your hand over it to produce that brilliant sound.

At the time, Good Vibrations was the most expensive song ever produced. Unusually, Brian Wilson crafted a single song as though he was working on a whole album, recording fragments of the track here and there, without an overall idea of how the song would even finsh up. Work began in February, with a full instrumental version finished in March. But it was very different to the finished version, and sounded like a funky R’n’B version. For instrumentation, the Beach Boys used members of the famed Wrecking Crew session musicians, who had already played on many number 1s, with more to come.

Work was paused for a spell while Wilson finished up producing Pet Sounds, and he returned to the single in April. At times, the nervous, sensitive Brian wondered what he was doing, and considered either letting Wilson Pickett record it or abandoning the song altogether, but was persuaded by his friend David Anderle to commit to it being the band’s next single. Understandably, some other Beach Boys members were reticent too, and worried that Brian’s ditching of accessibility would result in a resounding flop.

Normally I’d have put money on Mike Love being the most ardent critic, because, as we all know, Love has proven himself to be a dick on many occasions. However, Love was spot on in recognising that this ‘pocket symphony’, as their new press spokesman Derek Taylor (who also worked for the Beatles) called it, could have real appeal to the rising hippy movement. The lyrics he crafted were perfect.

Indeed, you can slate Love all you like, but that opening couplet, sung by Carl Wilson (Dennis was supposed to be main vocalist but fell ill with laryngitis so Carl stepped in), is spine-tingling. ‘I, I love the colourful clothes she wears/And the way the sunlight plays upon her hair’ sets the tone and, combined with the organ notes, you just know that you’re going to hear something really special. By playing with psychedelic imagery that matches the sound, yet grounding its theme in a love song, he makes the track appeal to everyone – no mean feat, as the track goes off on weird tangents like no hit single ever had. Also central to the tune’s brilliance is that wonderful, classic Beach Boys chorus. The Electro-Theremin still adds an electricity to the track, but those vocals, led by Love’s bass vocal, hark back to all their early surf songs.

At 1.41 you get the first tape splice. Some say it’s, by today’s standards, rather primitive, but not me. Suddenly, we’re in unchartered territory, and the tune loosens up and trips out as Love sings ‘I don’t know where but she sends me there’ over magical sounds made by cellos, organs, sleigh bells – so much is thrown into the mix it’s hard to really know.

Then, my favourite section. At 2.13, just when you think the track may revert to the chorus or a verse, everything comes to a halt, save for a maraca and low organ. We’re a long, long way from the orchestral ballads of the early 50s, from rock’n’roll, from Beatlemania, from everything. This could have caused the song to completely cave in, but Wilson times everything perfectly. Eventually the vocals kick in again, but it stays low key, with a harmonica joining in. And then, as we approach the three-minute mark, we get a blissful ‘aaaaah!’ and the chorus finally returns. Love the cello sound we hear soon afterwards – I’m a sucker for cellos.

Then, just as we think this symphony could go absolutely anywhere, the song fades out abruptly, and all too soon. That’s my only issue with Good Vibrations, that end fade. Well, that, and I love the extra, wordless vocal you get before the final chorus on some versions, and left in the new version Wilson included on Brian Wilson Presents SMiLE, released in 2004. That remake is an interesting listen, incidentally. I’m not sure if it’s due to the fall-out with Love, but Wilson opted for very different lyrics in the verses. They’re good, and the remake is very good in general, but they don’t beat Love’s.

You could argue that Brian Wilson paid the price with Good Vibrations and the aborted SMiLE, and was never the same again. But his loss was our gain, and how. All pathways were now open. The Beach Boys were on a creative par with the Beatles, and so began a psychedelic friendly war between the two groups that would result in Wilson losing his mind.

Written by: Brian Wilson & Mike Love

Producer: Brian Wilson

Weeks at number 1: 2 (17-30 November)