260. Joe Cocker – With a Little Help from My Friends (1968)

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Following six weeks at number 1, Mary Hopkin’s Those Were the Days was finally forced down the charts by the third chart-topper in a row with a Beatles connection. There are millions of covers of Beatles songs, but Sheffield singer Joe Cocker’s take on With a Little Help from My Friends still ranks as one of the more famous ones.

John Cocker was born in Crookes, a town in the South Yorkshire city, in May 1944. The origins of his nickname and future stage name are unclear due to differing family stories – Joe was either a local window cleaner or it stemmed from a childhood game he would play called Cowboy Joe.

As a boy he loved soul and skiffle, with Ray Charles and Lonnie Donegan among his heroes. He got the bug for performing when he made his stage debut aged just 12, after being invited up by his older brother Victor to perform with his skiffle group. At the age of 16 in 1960 he formed his first group, the Cavaliers, with three friends. A year later they split up and Cocker left school to become an apprentice gasfitter for the East Midlands Gas Board. But he wasn’t going to give up on his music dreams.

In 1961 he took on the stage name Vance Arnold and with the Avengers as his backing group, they would perform soul and blues covers in the pubs of Sheffield. In 1963 they supported the Rolling Stones at the City Hall, but with the big time beckoning, they split up and he decided to venture forth solo as Joe Cocker.

Cocker’s first single was released in 1964, and with Beatlemania in full effect, he hoped his cover of I’ll Cry Instead, with Jimmy Page and Big Jim Sullivan on guitars, would get him attention, but despite a pretty decent stab at it, it wasn’t that different from the original, which wasn’t one of Lennon and McCartney’s better songs, and it flopped. The raw vocal theatrics were in their formative stages, listening back. He showed promise, but was disheartened by the setback. Other than a short-lived new group, Joe Cocker’s Blues Band, he disappeared from music for a while.

In 1966 he returned with his new group, the Grease Band. Performing once more in local pubs, he got the attention of Denny Cordell, producer for Procol Harum, the Moody Blues and Georgie Fame. The singer went down to London and recorded a new single, Marjorine. The Grease Band was quickly dissolved. When it came to recording his next Beatles cover, somebody took the decision to adopt a very different approach, and it paid off big time.

As the whole world knows, the original With a Little Help from My Friends was track two on the Beatles’ psychedelic opus, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Ringo Starr, never the world’s greatest singer, would often get a country-western or novelty track on their albums in which to showcase his vocal talent… but Lennon and McCartney were clever this time around, using Starr’s charm and his poor singing skills to their advantage. Originally it was called Bad Finger Boogie, as Lennon composed the basic tune with his middle finger after damaging his forefinger (the band Badfinger took their name from this). The finished product, a (by 1967) rare joint effort between its songwriters, was a charming pop ditty that captured the spirit of the times. When it came to recording his version, this time Cocker took the Beatles into a different realm.

For me, if you’re going to cover a song, you should try and add something different, otherwise, why bother? It’s clear from the solemn opening organ that this is a very different beast. We then get some stinging guitar from future Led Zeppelin member Jimmy Page. Before starting this blog, I had no idea how many number 1s Page had featured on during his time as a session musician. It then settles down before star of the show Cocker starts showcasing his raspy, guttural singing, with backing vocals from Sue and Sunny, who later became members of Brotherhood of Man. Stretching out for just over five minutes, it’s the third lengthy number 1 in a row, and ends with the band and singer in an intense display of passion.

Cocker’s soul-rock version seems to divide opinion. I can understand critics who dislike this number 1, who don’t like the histrionics and earnestness and prefer the original. It’s horses for courses really, and I’ve room in my heart for both, they’re so different.

With a Little Help from My Friends catapulted Cocker to stardom. Although it was only number 1 for a week, it was a strong chart presence for much longer. Cocker put together a new version of the Grease Band to back him, which featured Henry McCullogh from Spooky Tooth, later to briefly be a member of Wings. 1969 began with Cocker’s first tour of the US, with his debut album, also called With a Little Help from My Friends released at the same time. He made his mark with his appearance at Woodstock Festival that August. The image of him swaying spasmodically, lost in the music in his tie-dye t-shirt and playing air guitar, is truly iconic.

Straight after Woodstock his second album, Joe Cocker! featured further Beatles covers Something and She Came in Through the Bathroom Window. As the 1970s began he broke up the Grease Band and formed a much larger group. More than 20 musicians became known as Mad Dogs & Englishmen, and adopted a heavier, bluesier sound. As they toured the US, the riotous parties that ensued took their toll, and despite his first US top ten success with a cover of The Letter, Cocker became an alcoholic. Knowing things were getting out of hand, he took a few years off.

Unfortunately his hellraising ways returned in 1972. He was arrested for marijuana possession in Adelaide and only a day later in Melbourne he recieved assault charges for a hotel brawl. Cocker was given 48 hours to leave the country. He added heroin to his list of vices, and although he was able to quit it, his alcohol intake worsened and by 1974 he was throwing up on stage. And yet he was still drawing crowds, and his cover of Billy Preston’s You Are So Beautiful became one of his most famous hits. Drink and money problems would be constant thorns in his side for the rest of the decade. He ended the 70s on a ‘Woodstock in Europe’ tour to celebrate its tenth anniversary.

The early 80s saw a comeback, however, thanks in large part to Up Where We Belong, his power ballad duet with Jennifer Warnes for the romantic drama An Officer and a Gentleman (1982). It was his first UK top ten hit in 13 years, a number 1 in the US, and it also garnered Academy and Grammy Awards. Cocker continued to succeed with movie soundtrack work – his cover of You Can Leave Your Hat On, used in the striptease scene of 1986 adult drama 9½ Weeks, earned him another Grammy nomination. The title track of his 1987 album, Unchain My Heart, was also a hit.

In the 90s he featured on the hit soundtrack to romantic drama The Bodyguard (1992) and was one of the few acts from the Woodstock Festival to perform at Woodstock ’94.

At the Golden Jubilee concert at Buckingham Palace in 2002 he performed his number 1 with Phil Collins on drums and Brian May playing guitar. Cocker then starred in minor roles in the Beatles-inspired musical Across the Universe in 2007. His last album, Fire It Up, was released in 2012. Sadly, years of drinking and heavy smoking finally caught up with the Sheffield star in 2014, and Cocker died from lung cancer on 22 December, aged 70.

To children growing up in the 80s and 90s like me, With a Little Help from My Friends may have a special place in their hearts because of its use as the theme tune to US coming-of-age TV series The Wonder Years. The song has been number 1 twice since, with versions by Wet Wet Wet in 1988 and Sam & Mark in 2004. Both adopted the Beatles approach, and neither are a patch on Cocker’s vocal tour-de-force.

Written by: John Lennon & Paul McCartney

Producer: Denny Cordell

Weeks at number 1: 1 (6-12 November)

Births:

Singer Steve Brookstein – 10 November

259. Mary Hopkin – Those Were the Days (1968)

26 September was the day the Theatres Act 1968 ended Draconian censorship in theatre, which enabled the famous US hippy musical Hair open in London the following day. Nevertheless, the nude scene still shocked stuffy English critics.

That week saw the start of a six-week run (the lengthiest that year) at number 1 for Mary Hopkin with Those Were the Days. The pretty Welsh folk singer with a powerful voice was the first solo female artist to top the charts since Sandie Shaw in April 1967 with Puppet on a String.

It’s interesting to note that with the exception of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, every artist to have a number 1 for the rest of the decade was never able to repeat the feat.

Born in Pontardawe in May 1950, Hopkin took singing lessons as a child and joined a local folk-rock group that became the Selby Set and Mary, who released a Welsh-language EP on their local label Cambrian. They split up after six months and Hopkin decided to go it alone.

She was initially horrified to learn her agent had booked her an audition for the ITV talent show Opportunity Knocks, as she wasn’t interested in becoming a light entertainment star. The 17-year-old was picked for the show and her reluctant appearance on 5 May 1968 was noticed by the model Twiggy. The following weekend she told Paul McCartney about Hopkin after he had mentioned the Beatles were scouting for talent for their new label Apple Records.

A telegram went to the family home, with a number to ring. Hopkin didn’t realise she was speaking to McCartney when he invited her to London to sign a contract. Her mother nearly dropped the phone when he revealed who they were speaking to. Understandably in awe, she recorded a few nervous demos for him, and a few days later became one of the first signings to the fledgling label.

Meeting with McCartney, he told her he knew just the song for her debut single, and that Donovan and the Moody Blues had been offered it but it hadn’t worked out. Paul then strummed Those Were the Days.

This nostalgic, bittersweet tune was originally a Russian song called Dorogoi dlinnoyu, meaning ‘By the road’. It had been written by Boris Fomin, with lyrics by Konstantin Podrevsky. The earliest recording is believed to date back to 1925, performed by Georgian singer Tamara Tsereteli. However, the Hopkin version featured a different set of lyrics. American musician Gene Raskin, who had loved the song when growing up, wrote new words with his wife Francesca in the early 1960s and copyrighted them in his name only. The Raskins played in London once a year, and would always close their sets with Those Were the Days. McCartney saw a performance and fell in love with the track.

He produced Hopkin’s version that July, with an arrangement by Richard Hewson that adopted a Russian feel, featuring a balalaika, cimbalom and tenor banjo. The singer and Beatles star both featured on acoustic guitar, and it’s also highly likely that Macca is on the banjo. After recording was completed, they recorded several foreign language versions, including Spanish, Italian, German and French.

It’s an unusual idea, getting an 18-year-old to sing a song that deals in the loss of youth, but not when you hear Hopkin’s performance. Her impressive, weathered vocal sounds like it belongs to someone entirely different. It’s a great production, sounding very distinct from any other number 1 really, and it’s surprising to find out it stayed at number 1 for so long. But then again, the chorus is catchy as hell, and it’s because of it that I feel I’ve known the song all my life. I’ve never taken notice of the verses before though, and I was impressed. We can all relate to that feeling of the best days being behind us, of mourning that feeling of invincibility that disspates as youth dies over the years. I particularly liked the last verse, where the singer returns to the tavern she used to frequent: ‘Just tonight I stood before the tavern/Nothing seemed the way it used to be/In the glass I saw a strange reflection/Was that lonely woman really me?’

However, it’s a little on the long side, and could probably have done with losing a minute or two. There was obviously an appetite for lengthier singles though, with Those Were the Days toppling the seven-minute-plus Hey Jude, by her own producer.

Those Were the Days was promoted as one of Apple’s ‘First Four’ and is officially the first proper single on the label, as ‘APPLE 1’ was a one-off for Ringo Starr’s wife, and Hey Jude was given a Parlophone Records catalogue number.

Around the same time, Sandie Shaw also recorded a version, but her star was on the wane, and without the backing of the Beatles, it failed to match the success of the Hopkin version.

Hopkin released her debut album, Postcard, in February 1969. Also produced by McCartney, it featured covers of songs by Donovan and Harry Nilsson. Her next single, Goodbye, credited to Lennon/McCartney but written by the latter, reached number two – ironically, it couldn’t repeat Hopkin’s earlier success, and she failed to knock Get Back from the top spot.

In 1970 she took part in the Eurovision Song Contest, and very nearly won with Knock. Knock Who’s There? But despite being the pre-contest favourite, she came second to Irish singer Dana’s All Kinds of Everything. It also reached number two in the singles chart. Hopkin was now working with Mickie Most, but her fame began to recede soon afterwards.

1971 saw her marry her new producer, Tony Visconti, and release her second album, Earth Song, Ocean Song. She was unhappy with showbusiness, and felt she achieved all she had wanted with this album, so she withdrew from the pop scene to start a family. She did however release a few songs here and there (there was another version of her number 1 among them), and would guest on her husband’s productions – most famously, it’s her you can hear singing at the start of David Bowie’s Sound and Vision from 1976.

The early 80s saw Hopkin briefly sing lead with the group Sundance. In 1981 she and Visconti divorced, and a year later she provided vocals on Vangelis’s soundtrack to sci-fi classic Blade Runner. She then joined Peter Skellern and Julian Lloyd Webber in a group called Oasis, but again, this was short-lived. Hopkin moved into acting, and in 1988 she appeared in Beatles producer George Martin’s production of Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood.

In the 90s she occasionally performed with the Chieftains, sang the theme song to Billy Connolly’s TV show World Tour of England, and re-recorded Those Were the Days with Robbie Williams rapping, apparently. I hope I never have to hear that.

Hopkin continued to release new music and archive tracks throughout the 2000s, and she appeared on her daughter Jessica Lee Morgan’s album in 2010. She also collaborated with her son Morgan Visconti that year. In August 2018 she released another version of Those Were the Days to celebrate its 50th anniversary, with its lyrics taking on an extra layer of poignancy.

Hopkin ruled the charts for the whole of October 1968, and into that November. Also in the news at the time…

On 2 October, a woman from Birmingham gave birth to the first recorded instance of live sextuplets in the UK. Three days later a civil rights marchin Derry, Northern Ireland was batoned off the streets by the Royal Ulster Constabulary, and a day later Jackie Stewart, Graham Hill and John Surtees took the first three places at the United States Grand Prix.

In further sporting action, Great Britain and Northern Ireland won five gold medals in the Olympic Games in Mexico City between 12-27 October. And also on 27 October, police clashed with protestors in an anti-Vietnam War protest outside the Embassy of the United States in London. Those were the days.

Written by: Boris Fomin & Gene Raskin

Producer: Paul McCartney

Weeks at number 1: 6 (25 September-5 November)

Births:

Actress Naomi Watts – 28 September
Bros singer Matt and drummer Luke Goss – 29 September
TV presenter Mark Durden-Smith – 1 October
Radio presenter Victoria Derbyshire – 2 October
Serial killer Beverley Allitt – 4 October
Radiohead singer Thom Yorke – 7 October
Footballer Matthew Le Tissier – 14 October

Deaths:

Publisher Stanley Unwin – 13 October
Comedian Bud Flanagan – 20 October 

258. The Beatles – Hey Jude (1968)

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15 September saw the Great Flood of 1968 bring exceptionally heavy rain and thunderstorms to the south east of England. The following day, the General Post Office divided post into first-class and second-class services for the first time.

Rewind seven months, and the Beatles travelled to Rishikesh in northern India to take part in a Transcendental Meditation course under the guidance of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Without Epstein to keep them under control, John, Paul, George and Ringo were struggling to stay together since McCartney had attempted to take the reins. Drugs were also having an impact. Perhaps spirituality could help?

It did and it didn’t. They were supposed to stay for three months, but Starr was the first to leave, after ten days. He likened it to Butlin’s. McCartney left after a month. Lennon and Harrison, who had been the first to try acid, were more open-minded, and of course Harrison was deeply interested in India. However, they both left a month later upon hearing the Maharishi was trying it on with female members of their entourage. Lennon, desperate for a father figure, was particularly hurt, immortalising the experience in Sexy Sadie.

But India had helped unlock the group’s creativity, to the extent they started work on their eponymous double album that May. Upon their return, they also announced the creation of Apple Records. Apple Corps Ltd was originally conceived after the death of Epstein, with their film Magical Mystery Tour its initial release under Apple Films. Their shop, Apple Boutique, opened in December 1967, but was gone by the following June. The failure was prophetic. The Beatles were overreaching. They were the greatest band of all time, but they weren’t businessmen. Far from bringing them closer together, Apple Records helped quicken the end, behind the scenes. The press conference implied that the new label would create a utopia, where anyone could send in their music, and although it was by far the most successful part of the empire, this was largely because of the music of the Beatles.

Many believe Hey Jude was the debut release on Apple Records. ‘Apple 1’ was a single pressing of Frank Sinatra singing Maureen Is a Champ to the tune of The Lady Is a Tramp. It was a surprise gift for Starr to his wife Maureen for her 21st, apparently. The confusion arose from Hey Jude‘s marketing as one of the ‘First Four’ singles on the label.

It was clear from the start that Paul McCartney was aware of just how popular his new ballad would be. Originally called Hey Jules, he has always said it was written in sympathy for Julian Lennon. His father had left his mother for the artist Yoko Ono in May, and McCartney thought it could help heal wounds. Cynthia was touched by the gesture when McCartney played it for them in a surprise visit. McCartney had already changed the name from ‘Jules’ to ‘Jude’, but there was no doubt to its meaning.

Macca would perform his latest composition at any given opportunity, including while producing the Bonzo Dog Band’s I’m the Urban Spaceman under the pseudonym Apollo C  Vermouth. Lennon, who had often struggled with McCartney’s choices for singles over the past few years, loved the song – in part because he thought it was actually written for him, ironically as a message to move on and stick with Ono. Paul also later said that he felt Hey Jude was perhaps aimed subconsciously at himself – his relationship with Jane Asher was nearly over. He had begun an affair with Linda Eastman, and was also involved with Frankie Schwartz.

That’s the beauty of Hey Jude. It’s essential message, that love hurts, but it’s worth the struggle, so chin-up, can be applied to anyone. It helps to know you’re not alone.

Famously, when the song was first presented to John and Yoko when they visited Paul on 26 July, he told them he would fix the line ‘the movement you need is on your shoulder’, John replied, ‘You won’t you know. That’s the best line in the song’.

The Beatles first rehearsed the song three days later at Abbey Road over two nights. Recordings prove that despite the animosity within the group, they could still get on and produce magic when working on the right material. However the mood did sour when Paul refused to let George play a guitar line as a response to the vocal.

They entered Trident Studios to record the master track on 31 July, after hearing it was equipped with an eight-track console rather than the standard four. The basic track featured McCartney on piano and lead vocal, Lennon on acoustic guitar, Harrison on electric guitar and Starr on drums. On 1 August they overdubbed McCartney’s bass, backing vocals from Lennon, McCartney and Harrison, and tambourine by Starr.

At some point they had decided the song was to feature that legendary lengthy coda that spawned a thousand imitations, and beefed it up with a 36-piece orchestra. All but one member of the orchestra joined in with singing and clapping on the record, which was deliberately faded out slowly until the record was allegedly deliberately made to last one second longer than Richard Harris’s MacArthur Park. For 25 years, Hey Jude was the lengthiest number 1 single. Meat Loaf’s I’d Do Anything for Love (But I Won’t Do That), released in 1993, ran for 7:52. If you simply can’t get enough of Hey Jude, the mono version lasts that little bit longer.

Depending on whether you can hear the accidental swearing in the Kinks’ You Really Got Me (I can’t), Hey Jude is also the first number 1 to feature audible swearing. At around 2:57, listen with headphones and you hear a ‘Woah!’ followed by ‘Fucking hell!’. For a few years now I assumed this was Lennon, and some sources claim it was a result of him listening to a playback and the volume being too loud on his headphones. But according to Beatles engineer Geoff Emerick, the swearing is from McCartney who had hit a bum note. Lennon persuaded him to keep it in, insisting nobody would ever know but those in the studio. Once you’ve heard the swearing, you’ll never miss it again.

Hey Jude is one of the greatest singles of all time. I won’t be persuaded otherwise by naysayers in recent years, who’ve scoffed at the fact it’s rolled out by McCartney at the Olympics and seemingly every big UK celebration. Overfamilarity hasn’t dulled its beauty for me. As I’ve said above, it’s a beautiful, sincere message from McCartney, and it’s sung with real tenderness until the coda.

Some scoff at the coda, calling it overblown, and laugh at McCartney’s soulful interjections during the chant. They’re wrong. I recall reading somewhere a review of the song that suggested the moment the orchestra represents the moment that Jude realises the singer is right, a sort-of ‘eureka’ moment. I love that idea, and if you go along with that, it makes McCartney’s excited performance perfectly appropriate. He’s chuffed that Jude has got the message, and is thrilled for him.

You can’t blame Hey Jude for all the substandard rip-offs that followed in its wake, either. And to be fair, it was also responsible for some really good rip-offs, eg David Bowie’s Memory of a Free Festival a year later. It has been misused over the years, adopted by other singers/bands as a cheap way of lengthening their set (Robbie Williams at Glastonbury in 1998, for example), but when heard at the right time, in the right atmosphere, it can bring a tear to the eye, or make you feel pure ecstasy (the writer himself at Glastonbury in 2004, for example).

Hey Jude was released on 26 August. As mentioned earlier, it was one of the initial four Apple singles released to the public. The other three were Mary Hopkins’ Those Were the Days (produced by McCartney) which would knock the Beatles from the top spot), Jackie Lomax’s Sour Milk Sea (written and produced by Harrison) and Thingumybob by the Black Dyke Mills Band (produced by McCartney).

Michael Lindsay-Hogg was hired to film videos for the single and the B-side Revolution (for some reason, they were a double-A-side in the US, but not here). Together, they worked on a mock-live performance, where the Beatles performed to a backing track with live orchestra and vocals, as they reached the coda, the audience invade the stage and envelop the group, creating a beautiful image of band and fans as one. An enduring image, but as false as John, Paul, George and Ringo pretending they were still a cohesive unit. The Beatles were growing up and outgrowing each other.

But in September 1968, the Beatles were back on top with the best-selling single of 1968, and four out of the next five number 1s were linked to the Fab Four. After the commercial misfire of Magical Mystery Tour the year before, they ruled the world once more.

As for Hey Jude, I predict that unfortunately it’ll take the death of Paul McCartney for popular opinion to turn round and for it to be recognised as the classic it undoubtedly is, and for its writer to be recognised as a true genius alongside John Lennon.

Written by: John Lennon & Paul McCartney

Producer: George Martin

Weeks at number 1: 2 (11-24 September) *BEST-SELLING SINGLE OF THE YEAR*

Births:

Politician Grant Shapps – 14 September
Television presenter Philippa Forrester – 20 September 

Deaths:

Scottish golfer Tommy Armour – 12 September 

257. Bee Gees – I’ve Gotta Get a Message to You (1968)

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British tennis player Virginia Wade made headlines on 8 September when she defeated Billie Jean King to win the US Open Women’s Singles event. It was her first Grand Slam singles title and her only one at the US Open. That week, the Bee Gees had their second and last number 1 of the 1960s.

Since the success of Massachusetts, the Gibb brothers (and co) had continued work on their second album to be released internationally. Horizontal, which hit the shops in February 1968, featured their first number 1, and another hit, World. Guitarist Vince Melouney and drummer Colin Petersen had an increased influence this time around, meaning Horizontal was heavier and darker than the very-1967 Bee Gees 1st.

From there, the Bee Gees made their first appearance on US television and toured the world. They also turned down the opportunity to write and perform the soundtrack for Joe Massot’s psychedelic Wonderwall (1968), which was eventually taken on by George Harrison.

Their single, Words, became one of the most famous Bee Gees ballads, but follow-up Jumbo/The Singer Sang His Song only reached number 25 – their worst chart performance up to that point. But the band were recording like their lives depended on it – in June they finished recording their next album, Idea, and the following month they set to work on Odessa. Despite this purple patch, tensions were growing.

On 12 July, during early sessions for Odessa, they set to work on their next number 1 song. It’s believed that Robin wrote the lyrics for I’ve Gotta Get a Message to You ‘on the spot’, with the music coming jointly from him and his brothers. Robin decided to write from the viewpoint of a man on Death Row that had murdered his wife’s lover, who was determined that the prison chaplain send a final message to her.

This urgent slice of blue-eyed soul ditches the gentle psych-folk of Massachussets and is more like their other early classic, To Love Somebody. Thematically of course, it’s similar to Tom Jones’s Green, Green Grass of Home – but better. Perhaps it’s the fact that the singer committed a crime of passion due to his wife’s affair, but it’s so much easier to identify with and feel sympathy for this character than Tom when you compare the two.

I’ve Gotta Get a Message to You is never included in lists of Bee Gees classics, but I really love it. It’s rather earnest, and melodramatic, but all the better for it. Originally it was intended for soul singer Percy Sledge, who did cover it. The pleading, plaintive vocals hit the spot, as always with the Gibbs (co-producer and manager Robert Stigwood had called the singers back to the studio that night to record the three-part harmonies), and the chorus is really addictive. The bass is especially good, courtesy of Maurice, who at the time was a huge admirer of Paul McCartney’s style, and it’s also him on the mellotron, which makes the chorus even more memorable.

Confusingly, there are five versions, all made from a single recording, in stereo, mono, played at different speeds, with different fade-outs, and percussion and strings sounds at varying volume. The percussion is a little off-putting actually, when too high, as it sounds like a CD track that’s stuttering. The mono single version has it all about right, though.

The Bee Gees also recorded a video, which you can see above, featuring the group performing in a white room on a revolving platform. Simple but effective, unlike Barry’s all-in-one black blouse, which is a bit much, really.

Released just before Idea, but not included on the UK version of the album, I’ve Gotta Get a Message to You only spent a week at number 1 before Hey Jude took over. In the US, it became their first top ten hit. But things soon turned sour for the Bee Gees. Since 1967 they had been seen superstars, and potential rivals to the Beatles. As we know, however, the wilderness years beckoned. Melouney and Petersen wouId soon quit, and then Robin would briefly leave. It would be a full decade before they had another number 1 single.

Written by: Barry, Robin & Maurice Gibb

Producer: Robert Stigwood & Bee Gees

Weeks at number 1: 1 (4-10 September)

Births:

Anti-war activist Anas Altikriti – 9 September
Actress Julia Sawalha – 9 September

Deaths:

Golfer Tommy Armour – 12 September

256. The Beach Boys – Do It Again (1968)

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On 31 August and 1 September 1968 the first Isle of Wight Festival took place. Held at Ford Farm, near Godshill, roughly 10,000 people saw headliners Jefferson Airplane, along with the Crazy World of Arthur Brown, the Move, Tyrannosaurus Rex and Fairport Convention, among others.

Reigning at the top of the charts that week were the Beach Boys, for the second and last time. But whereas their previous number 1 Good Vibrations explored a brave new world of sonic adventure, Do It Again was a throwback to the surfing sound of the early days of the group. Like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, the Beach Boys went back to basics – well, almost.

As 1966 had drawn to a close, the Beach Boys were riding high both critically and commercially. Good Vibrations was such a spellbinding track, the next album, SMiLE, promised to be their answer to the Beatles’ Revolver. It wasn’t meant to be, though. Brian Wilson was a genius, but SMiLE proved to be his breaking point, and it was repeatedly postponed as his paranoia and perfectionism took charge, before it was shelved in 1967. Their woes continued when the group were slated for pulling out of their Monterey Pop Festival headlining slot at the last minute.

In July, their new album, Smiley Smile, salvaged from the wreckage of SMiLE, was slated. Although in years to come it eventually garnered praise, it was their worst-selling album at that point, and it was downhill from there. Jimi Hendrix, the new US sensation in the UK, also dismissed its single, Heroes and Villains. The year ended with the release of Wild Honey, but once again, a Beach Boys album underperformed, only to gain critical reappraisal eventually. But of course, an oversensitive Brian wasn’t to know what the future held, and he must have been in turmoil. His songwriting decreased rapidly.

Friends, their first album of 1968, was more of a group effort, and featured songs inspired by their experience of Transcendental Meditation with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, along with the Beatles. Also that June, Dennis Wilson befriended a struggling singer-songwriter called Charles Manson. He urged his brother Brian to show interest, but Brian disliked him. A few weeks later they released a stand-alone single.

Do It Again was originally known as Rendezvous, and its lyrics were inspired by a day at the beach Mike Love spent with an old friend. Love put some lyrics together and presented them to his cousin Brian, who began playing around on the piano. They worked together on a chorus, and according to Love, their second UK number 1 was complete in 15 minutes.

With its nostalgic lyrics, recalling ‘Suntanned bodies and/Waves of Sunshine/Calfifornia girls and a/Beautiful coastline’, trademark sunkissed harmonies and its brevity, Do It Again is certainly regressive when compared to Good Vibrations. However, its drums, played by Dennis and session musician John Guerin, are a step forward, and the most adventurous we’ve heard on this blog since Cathy’s Clown by the Everly Brothers in 1960. The compressed, metallic sound came from engineer Stephen Desper, who used tape delay units from live shows meant for vocals to create a clattering of echoed drumbeats. For years I’ve found this drumbeat familiar. I’ve also found the drums in the 1998 song Remember, by French electronic duo Air rang a bell too. Only from researching this did I find out they are one and the same. Remember, indeed.

So yes, the drums are great, and the swaying rhythm is pretty cool, perhaps even a bit, dare I say it, sexy (not a word I’d normally equate with the Beach Boys, and I doubt anyone else does). But it’s hard not to feel a bit underwhelmed by Do It Again, and wonder why this did so well in the UK, especially compared to their home country. Perhaps the idea of surfing in America still held some lustre in dismal old England. Or maybe its a nice little tune that I’m being harsh on, and it just happens to pale in comparison to Good Vibrations, which after all is one of the greatest singles of all time. It has endured over the years, though – its ‘did it’ vocal hook directly influenced Eric Carmen on She Did It, ABBA on On and On and Hall & Oates on Did It in a Minute. It was also re-recorded by members of the Beach Boys several times, including a 2011 version by surviving members of the band to celebrate their 50th anniversary.

Do It Again became the opening track on their 1969 contractual obligation album 20/20, which consisted of mainly outtakes and leftovers. One track on there, Never Learn Not to Love, was a rewrite of Charles Manson’s Cease to Exist. Manson had exchanged his credit for cold hard cash and a motorbike, but he was angry when he discovered Dennis had changed the lyrics. Dennis distanced himself from the increasingly disturbed Manson, and later that year the Manson Family began their killing spree at his command.

As the 1970s began, the Beach Boys signed with Reprise Records and recorded Sunflower, widely regarded by their fans as their best album after Pet Sounds. In 1971 came Surf’s Up, featuring the whistful title track that had originally been intended for SMiLE. Bruce Johnston, who had joined the band in 1965 to replace Brian in live shows, departed shortly after the release. In 1972, Ricky Fataar and Blondie Chaplin joined them at the request of Carl Wilson, and their sound toughened up.

Several underperforming albums followed, but the Beach Boys wode a wave of nostalgia in 1973 following the release of George Lucas’s coming-of-age comedy American Graffiti. Fataar left in 1974, and became a member of Neil Innes’s Beatles spoof band the Rutles, among other things. Meanwhile, Brian had become an alcoholic, overweight recluse, also inclined to taking heroin. In 1975 he went under the care of psychotherapist Eugene Landy, cleaned up somewhat and became the main producer for the Beach Boys once more, although this created a fractious atmosphere.

Despite this, their 1977 album The Beach Boys Love You, originally planned as a solo album for Brian, proved a bold departure, featuring a proto-new wave sound at times and featuring synths. It divided opinion, but Brian loves it.

The rest of the 70s were not a good time for the group, with internal tensions becoming unbearable. The Beach Boys split – for less than three weeks. All three Wilson brothers struggled with alcohol and drugs.

Things did improve, sales-wise in the early 80s when Johnston returned, but Dennis and Carl were largely absent. Following an overdose in 1982, Landy brought Brian back to health under a strict regime, but Dennis was struggling more and more, and sadly drowned in 1983, aged 39. In 1987, they had a hit with the Fat Boys, collaborating on a cover of Wipe Out, and a year later they scored an unexpected hit with Kokomo – considered by many fans to be their nadir. The Beach Boys were now a long way from that cool group who had made Pet Sounds.

Much of the 90s was spent with Wilson and Love at each other’s throats. They made the headlines in the UK in 1996 when a remake of Fun Fun Fun with Status Quo saw both bands unceremoniously kicked off BBC Radio 1’s playlist. In 1998, Carl, the voice behind so many of their classics, succumbed to brain and lung cancer.

As the 21st century dawned, the Beach Boys splintered more than ever. This unexpectedly led to a huge boost for Brian, who went solo and worked with the Wondermints, who did a brilliant job at sounding like his former bandmates. In 2004 he released Brian Wilson Presents SMiLe. The nervous, shuffling figure that appeared on stage at Glastonbury Festival in 2005 may have been a shadow of his former self, and he would have been lost without his new band, but that blazing Sunday afternoon he blew the crowd, myself included, away. After days of rain and sodden mud, the sky was blue and mentally we were all in California (we were certainly not in a normal place, that’s for sure).

As the 50th anniversary came around in 2012, Brian Wilson, Mike Love, Al Jardine, Bruce Johnston and David Marks reunited for a live tour and new album That’s Why God Made the Radio. Unsurprisingly, it was short-lived, with Wilson and Love falling out yet again.

It’s all too easy to see Brian as the sympathetic figure in all these arguments. A sad but loveable genius, pushed around by his nasty cousin, who doesn’t give a shit about the artistic legacy of the group and only cares about the money. It’s all too easy, because it’s the truth. Yet despite Love’s best efforts, the Beach Boys will always be considered one of the greatest groups of all time, and that’s primarily because of Brian Wilson.

Written by: Brian Wilson & Mike Love

Producers: The Beach Boys

Weeks at number 1: 1 (28 August-3 September)

 

 

255. The Crazy World of Arthur Brown – Fire (1968)

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‘I AM THE GOD OF HELLFIRE AND I BRING YOU…’ Yes, Tommy James and the Shondells’ stint at number 1 with the raunchy Mony Mony was interrupted briefly by the schlock-horror psychedelia of Fire. The Crazy World of Arthur Brown were only at the top of the charts for a week, but they gave us one of the most memorable one-hit wonders of all time.

Before he became the god of hell fire, he was plain Arthur Brown from the seaside town of Whitby, North Yorkshire. Pretty appropriate, considering its links to goth culture. Born in June 1942, he went to Roundhay Grammar School in Leeds, and then moved to London to attend the University of London and the University of Reading. While at the latter, he formed his first band, Blues and Brown, in 1965. The following year he moved to Paris, and while working on his theatrical skills, which later stood him in good stead, he recorded his first material – two songs for the movie adaptation of La Curée.

Around late 1966-early 1967 he returned to London, and was briefly a member of the Ramong Sound. The promising multi-racial R’n’B and soul group had run into a spot of bother when their frontman, Ramong Morrison, was imprisoned. Brown was suggested and he and Clem Curtis briefly fronted the band. However, Brown had already set up the Crazy World of Arthur Brown and soon left to concentrate on his fledgling group. The Ramong Sound morphed into the Foundations, and later that year they scored a number 1 with Baby, Now That I’ve Found You.

The Crazy World of Arthur Brown were Brown on vocals, Vincent Crane on Hammond organ and piano, Drachen Theaker on drums and Nick Greenwood on bass. Unusually, there was no guitarist. And unusual was what helped the Crazy World of Arthur Brown stand out in that first year. With his penchant for energetic, over-the-top performances and a dark operatic voice, Brown was a mesmeric frontman, with the band quickly becoming known as an antithesis to the day-glo flower power during the Summer of Love.  He began performing a song called Fire, and at the Windsor Festival he wore a collander on his head soaked in methanol. Not for the last time, the fuel poured over him by accident, and his head caught fire. For the acid-taking hippies, this must have been a hell (pardon the pun) of a sight. In addition to almost burning his face off, he would wear ghoulish make-up and occasionally perform naked. This was all a long way from the besuited Beatles or tuxedo-wearing easy listening stars of yesteryear, and really helped the band get noticed.

They signed with the ultra-hip Track Records, which had been founded by Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp, who managed the Who. The label was also home to the Jimi Hendrix Experience. Debut single Devil’s Grip is long forgotten and failed to chart, but in June 1968 they released their debut eponymous LP and Fire. Following memorable TV appearances, both rapidly climbed the charts.

Critics of Fire argue that that opening electrifying statement from Brown is the best part, and that the rest of the tune fails to live up to such drama. Maybe they have a point, but for me, Fire is a lot of fun and a song I never fail to enjoy. Crane’s organ riff might be cheesy, but I’ve always dug a good Hammond organ. One thing I will agree with from a critical persepctive is that the mono version is a little empty-sounding, not only is there no guitar, but there’s no bass either. Until researching this, I’d never heard the mono. The horns in the stereo mix add some much-needed beef to the production. Both versions also end very differently, with a weird lazer sound on the mono, whereas the stereo fades out with demonic wailing, trumpets and a primitive ‘fiery’ noise. Apparently, the brass and extra strings on the album came at the behest of US label Atlantic.

Originally credited to Brown and Crane, eventually Mike Finesilver and Peter Ker received songwriting credits due to the similarity to their long-forgotten track Baby, You’re a Long Way Behind. Interestingly, Ronnie Wood claimed a few years back to have played bass on Fire, but Brown believes he’s getting mixed up with helping out on a radio session version. I’d imagine Wood’s memory is a little muddy. The Who’s Pete Townshend received an executive production credit on the album, but nobody seems to know what that actually entails. Although I’ve yet to hear The Crazy World of Arthur Brown, I can recommend the track Spontaneous Apple Creation.

Once the influence of psychedelia faded from the charts, the novelty of Brown’s group quickly wore off with the general public. Brown was simply too weird to remain a popular star. Theaker had left the band in 1968 due to his fear of flying, and was replaced by Carl Palmer. Crane also left briefly and then returned, but in June 1969 The Crazy World of Arthur Brown disbanded, with Crane and Palmer forming Atomic Rooster. Palmer of course became a third of progressive rock supergroup Emerson, Lake & Palmer and later joined Asia.

Brown has retained a cult following ever since. He formed Kingdom Come in 1970, and continued to plough the same dark but camp psychedelic and progressive path. They appeared at Glastonbury Fayre in 1971, before splitting three years later. In 1975 Brown starred in the Who’s rock opera Tommy as ‘The Priest’. He released several solo albums before moving to Africa briefly.

In the 80s Brown moved to Austin, Texas and obtained a master’s degree in counselling. Imagine deciding you needed help and walking in to find Arthur Brown with a flaming collander on his head… ‘I AM THE GOD OF HELLFIRE AND I BRING YOU… THERAPY!’. Even stranger than that, he became a painter and carpenter along with Jimmy Carl Black from Mothers of Invention, and they recorded an album together called Brown, Black and Blue, released in 1988. 

The 90s saw the intro to Fire sampled on Essex rave outfit the Prodigy’s song of the same name in 1992. Brown collaborated with Iron Maiden’s Bruce Dickinson, as well as psychedelic indie-rockers Kula Shaker.

In the 21st century, Brown is still accidentally setting fire to himself, performing for his beloved hardcore fans. He also appeared in the Darkness’s video for Is It Just Me? in 2006, and in 2010 he returned to Glastonbury Festival. Now 76, later this year he will work with Carl Palmer once more, singing on his ELP Legacy tour.

It’s easy to poke affectionate fun at Brown, but he must have been an exciting and idiosyncratic presence on the charts in 1968. You cannot deny his influence on a wide range of flamboyant rock and pop stars either, including Alice Cooper, David Bowie, Peter Gabriel, George Clinton and Marilyn Manson. Let’s hope he sees out the rest of his years without a fire-related fatal incident.

Written by: Arthur Brown, Vincent Crane, Mike Finesilver & Peter Ker

Producer: Kit Lambert

Weeks at number 1: 1 (14-20 August)

Births:

Boxer Jane Couch – 14 August
Actor Adrian Lester – 14 August|
Actress Helen McCrory – 17 August

 

254. Tommy James and the Shondells – Mony Mony (1968)

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The day this number 1 hit the top was a milestone in television comedy. 31 July saw the first ever episode of World War Two comedy series Dad’s Army transmitted on BBC One. Written by Jimmy Perry and David Croft, it ran for the next nine years and has been repeated eternally ever since. It’ll probably be the last programme on TV when Donald Trump or Boris Johnson press the big red button.

Mony Mony was the first time in a good few years that SEX raised its head in pole position of the singles chart. Psychedelia might have been a time for free love, but lust (by and large) seemed somewhat neutered on 7-inches (snigger).

Rock band Tommy James and the Shondells had an interesting history up to this point. Tommy James, real name Tommy Jackson was born in Dayton, Ohio in April 1947. He had his first taste of stardom while very young – he was a child model at the age of four. Jackson formed his first group in the new family hometown of Niles, Michigan aged 12. Originally called the Echoes in 1959, then Tom and the Tornadoes, they released a single, Long Pony Tail, in 1962. They settled on the Shondells in 1964 by way of tribute to singer Troy Shondell.

That year, while still at high school, they recorded the Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich song Hanky Panky, but although it garnered a good local following, it failed to break out, and the Shondells split the following year.

While Jackson tried and failed in new groups, Hanky Panky was discovered in a bargain bin by a local DJ and he helped the song gain a new following. Bootlegs were soon pressed up and Hanky Panky was more popular than ever. Jackson travelled to New York in search of a record deal. Unfortunately, he found one with Roulette Records. The label was owned by Morris Levy. A hard-nosed criminal who swindled his acts out of royalties, Levy managed to scare any other interested label away from Jackson, even much bigger ones than his own. Levy inspired the character Hesh in The Sopranos.

Of course, the Shondells as they were had long since split, so Jackson searched for a new band, and found them in a house band called the Raconteurs in Greensburg, Pennsylvania. He changed his name professionally to Tommy James and soon the most famous line-up of the Shondells settled on guitarist Eddie Gray, bassist Mike Vale, Ron Rosman on keyboards and Pete Lucia on drums. With the backing of Levy, Hanky Panky became number 1 on the Billboard chart in 1966.

The next few singles didn’t perform spectacularly, but eventually they found their groove, a bubblegum pop and rock sound, with songwriters and producers Bo Gentry and Ritchie Cordell. They wrote, among others, I Think We’re Alone Now, a UK number 1 for Tiffany in 1988.

By 1968, Tommy James and the Shondells were working on a promising new song, which was more or less complete, but James was struggling for a title. He had considered Sloopy or Bony Maroney, but thought they sounded stupid. They tried in vain, until James went outside, looked up and saw the Mututal of New York building. Its initials were illuminated in red at the top, and James had his ‘eureka!’ moment.

Also credited to singer-songwriter Bobby Bloom, Mony Mony was, as I said, the raunchiest UK number 1 for some time. Okay, we’re not talking Justify My Love levels of filth here, but we’re still a year off Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin topping the charts. It’s clear James is feeling like one horny bugger during the chorus. Unfortunately, as catchy as the ‘Mony Mony’ chant is, it’s a bit too bubblegum, and the backing vocals keep James in check. There’s an interesting tension there. I’ve always liked this tune, after first hearing punk rocker Billy Idol’s version as a child.

Mony Mony didn’t reach number 1 in the US, but enjoyed a fortnight in the UK over the summer. It was then briefly toppled by the Crazy World of Arthur Brown, but after only a week, Fire was usurped by Mony Mony for a further week.

Tommy James and the Shondells were beginning to tire of the bubblegum element of their material, and decided on a mature, pyschedelic sound. It paid off, and Crimson and Clover (which was pretty much a Tommy James solo single in all but name) ended a great year for the group at number 1 in the US. One of their bestsellers in 1969 was the sublime Crystal Blue Persuasion, used to great effect in Breaking Bad many years later. They did make a big misstep that year though, laughing off an invitation to play at a festival called Woodstock.

James and the Shondells came to an abrupt halt in 1970 when an exhausted James came off stage and collapsed. He was initially pronounced dead due to drugs. Wisely, James took off for a quiet life in the country. The Shondells renamed themselves Hog Heaven but disbanded after two albums. James however remained in the business and along with a solo career he wrote and produced a US hit for Alive N Kickin in 1970.

60s nostalgia was everywhere in the 80s, and Tommy James and the Shondells did very well out of it. Idol’s Mony Mony was released in 1982, Joan Jett & the Blackhearts had a hit with Crimson and Clover, and then in 1987 Tiffany’s I Think We’re Alone Now and a live version of Mony Mony by Idol were back-to-back chart-toppers in the US.

Thanks to audiences at Idol gigs, Mony Mony became way filthier than the original version. In between every line in the verses, crowds began to chant either ‘Hey, say what… get laid get fucked!’ or ‘Hey, motherfucker… get laid get fucked!’. Then the chorus chant was changed to ‘Fucking horny!’. Dear me.

All this renewed interest in the band inevitably led to James and a new Shondells line-up joining the oldies circuit. Classic-era drummer Lucia died while playing golf in 1987, aged 39.

2010 saw the publication of James’s autobiography. Me, The Mob, and The Music. It detailed how he was left out of pocket by Roulette Records and how it was in fact cover for Levy’s money-laundering operation. He even had to leave New York at one point to avoid being the victim of a Mob hit. He still performs live with a version of the Shondells.

While Mony Mony was number 1, British Rail’s last steam train service ended. On 11 August, steam locomotives made the 314-mile return passenger journey from Liverpool to Carlisle. The trains were either sent to the scrapyard or kept for preservation.

Written by: Tommy James, Bo Gentry, Ritchie Cordell & Bobby Bloom

Producers: Bo Gentry & Ritchie Cordell

Weeks at number 1: 3 (31 July-13 August, 21-27 August)

Births:

Scottish race driver Colin McRae – 5 August
Footballer Julian Dicks – 8 August
Cyclist Chris Boardman – 26 August 

Deaths:

Princess Marina, Duchess of Kent – 27 August