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