279. The Archies – Sugar Sugar (1969)

The penultimate number 1 of the 60s sat pretty in the top spot for close to two whole months, and only narrowly missed out on the Christmas number 1 spot. Before delving deeper into the slick pop of Sugar Sugar by the cartoon band, the Archies, what else was happening in the UK?

Three weeks into its run, regular colour TV broadcasts, began on both BBC One and ITV on 15 November. The very next day saw the BBC One debut of much-loved children’s stop-motion animated TV series Clangers.

The day after, in a move that had a far-reaching effect on the British press, The Sun newspaper, previously a left-wing broadsheet, was relaunched as a right-wing tabloid. Despite falling circulation, it remains influential and one of the most popular newspapers in the country.

On 25 November, John Lennon returned his MBE in protest against the British involvement in Biafra, as well as supporting the US in Vietnam. The Beatles as cuddly establishment moptops seemed a long time ago.

As a cold late November turned into a mild early December, Sugar Sugar held firm. On 10 December it was announced that organic chemist Derek Barton had jointly won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry with the Norwegian Odd Hassel. Barclays Bank purchased Martins Bank on 15 December, and three days later, the abolition of the death penalty was made permanent by Parliament. Whether our new government will bring it back, only time will tell.

Also that day, the sixth James Bond film, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, was released. This was the first and last to feature George Lazenby, after Sean Connery had quit the role.

Artists like the Beatles and Bob Dylan had made self-penned songs fashionable, and for most of the 60s, it was they and others of their ilk that often reached the top spot. But as the pop audience matured and moved on to buying albums, the gap was starting to be filled by bubblegum pop – squeaky-clean commercial songs, like Dizzy, made to order by hit-making teams, much like in the 50s, and given to singers such as Tommy Roe.

It would be a lie to say this type of thing had ever really gone away though. Motown aped the production-line of the car factories of its hometown Detroit, and the Monkees were a pop phenomenon whose songs were mostly written and recorded by other musicians, until they broke free. And it was Don Kirshner, the man that had been dumped by the Monkees, that came up with the idea of turning a comic into a band in 1968. From his point of view, it was a no-brainer. All had been going well until the Monkees got too big for their boots – why not start over, only this time, why not remove all pretence that the band is real? And why not use cartoon characters that already had a huge audience to give the project a head start? After all, it had worked in the 50s – Alvin and the Chipmunks had been and still are very successful.

Kirshner was hired by CBS in late 1967 to be musical supervisor on their new Saturday morning cartoon series The Archie Show. Based on popular characters from The Archie Comics, which began in 1941, it followed the adventures of a bunch of all-American teenage friends from Riverdale High School that had formed a band. 17-year-old Archie Andrews was the central figure, lead singer and rhythm guitarist. His best friend Jughead Jones was their drummer, with wisecracking Reggie Mantle on bass. But unusually, this wasn’t just a boy’s own setup, very unusual for that time. Rich girl Veronica Lodge also sang and played keyboards, and tomboy Betty Cooper was lead guitarist and percussionist. Girl power!

The show had a 17-episode run, premiering in the US in September 1968 until January 1969. Kirshner’s job was to hire the songwriters and musicians for the songs the Archies would be performing. He wasted no time in hiring Jeff Barry to co-produce with him. Barry, together with Ellie Greenwich, was responsible for some of the biggest pop hits of the decade, including Da Doo Ron Ron, Then He Kissed Me and Do Wah Diddy Diddy, a number 1 for Manfred Mann in 1964. He had co-written Tell Laura I Love Her with Ben Raleigh, which had been a UK number 1 for Ricky Valance in 1960, and worked with Kirshner on the Monkees’ hits, including producing their UK chart-topper I’m a Believer.

For their eponymous debut album, the Archies music was performed by singer Ron Dante, drummer Gary Chester, guitarist Dave Appell, bassist Joey Macho (great name) and keyboardist Ron Frangipane (even better name). Kirshner had wanted Kenny Karen to be the vocalist, but Barry liked Dante, who had been the singer novelty parody band the Detergents. He was also in the rock group the Cuff Links.

The first single released, Bang-Shang-A-Lang (sounds like a Bay City Rollers song title) did okay, reaching number 22 on the Billboard chart in the US, so the project continued.

For the sessions for second album, Everything’s Archie, Kirshner left Barry to produce alone. Among the material was a song by Barry and Canadian singer-songwriter Andy Kim. Sugar Sugar was catchy as hell, and encapsulated bubblegum pop totally. It was all wide-eyed innocence, as sweet as the title suggested and contained hook upon hook. Kim also plated guitar and joined Dante on the vocals, and Toni Wine performed the female voices. Wine was a songwriter too, and had co-written A Groovy Kind of Love with Carole Bayer Sager for the Mindbenders. Joining them and the line-up of the debut album was guitarist Sal DiTroia and Ray Stevens provided the all-important handclaps.

Sugar Sugar was so strong, they decided to release it before the LP was completed. Allegedly, because previous single Feelin’ So Good (S.K.O.O.B.Y-.D.O.O.) hadn’t performed well, Kirshner decided not to reveal the identity of the band behind Sugar Sugar when DJs got their hands on it in May 1969. Whether this is true or not, it was some time before it became really big. It eventually climbed to the top in the US that September, and the UK a month later.

I totally get the reasons for Sugar Sugar‘s enduring popularity, for all the reasons I’ve given above, and more – mostly the infectious keyboard interjections in the chorus, obviously. It has all the ingredients needed for a pop song. But it’s never done much for me. Even as a child, I found it a bit too sickly-sweet and cloying. I found the lyrics silly and the ‘band’ irritating, having never actually seen the cartoon, just the clips compiled to make a music video.

As an adult, it’s all a bit too cynical and professional for my liking. Don’t get me wrong, I no longer feel, as I did in my 20s, that music is only any good if the artist is ‘4 Real’, but try as I might, Sugar Sugar mostly leaves me cold. The ‘Pour your sugar on me, honey’ line is quite good though, and sung with some much-needed passion.

Sugar Sugar was the best-selling song of 1969 and stayed at number 1 for eight weeks – a feat that was last achieved by the Shadows with Wonderful Land in 1962. I can only assume the TV show was being shown in the UK at the time and doing well too, otherwise, why would it perform even better here than in the US? Whatever the reasons, it was a sign of things to come in the following decade, as bubblegum pop continued to sell hugely, and innocent acts like the Osmonds entrancing children. The idea of cartoon bands surfaces in the charts from time to time – Damon Albarn’s Gorillaz, for example.

Filmation continued to produce various Archies TV shows until 1978, but the musical project had ground to a halt before then. Nothing matched Sugar Sugar, and after follow-up Jingle Jangle (not featuring Jimmy Savile), the band’s success tailed off sharply. Fourth album Sunshine in 1970 (which has great sun-drenched, slightly sinister artwork that wouldn’t look out of place on a Boards of Canada release) was the last to feature Jeff Barry and Andy Kim properly, and was more grown-up than previous releases. 1971’s This Is Love was the final regular release.

Barry became interested in writing music for film and television afterwards, and Kim had a solo hit in 1974 with Rock Me Gently. After a short-lived solo career, Dante moved into production and did very well at it, producing hits for Barry Manilow. In 2008 he returned to the Riverdale teens, singing on The Archies Christmas Album. Kirshner continued to work in music for TV shows. He died of heart failure in 2011, aged 76.

Archie Comics continued to be mined, with Sabrina, the Teenage Witch proving to be the other most popular character. Archie Andrews was killed off in 2014, shot in the stomach while saving the life of his friend, Senator Kevin Keller. Riverdale was renamed Archie Andrews High School in his honour. 2017 saw the debut of TV drama series Riverdale, which turned the premise of the characters on its head, with the lives of Archie and co proving much darker than the original comic-strip could ever have been.

And while we’re on the subject of ‘dark’, if Sugar Sugar had lasted at number 1 a further week, it would have been Christmas number 1 and the final chart-topper of the decade. However, it was pipped by another hugely popular children’s song, now sadly infamous thanks to the singer.

Can you tell what it is yet?

Written by: Andy Kim & Jeff Barry

Producer: Jeff Barry

Weeks at number 1: 8 (25 October-19 December) *BEST-SELLING SINGLE OF THE YEAR*

Births:

Scottish actor Gerard Butler – 13 November
Rock drummer Michael Lee – 19 November
Politician Sajid Javid – 5 December
TV presenter Richard Hammond – 19 December

Deaths:

Bandleader Ted Heath – 18 November
Princess Alice of Battenburg – 5 December

271. Tommy Roe – Dizzy (1969)

By 1969 the kids that were caught up in Beatlemania were outgrowing pop singles. Thanks to the Fab Four, and their contemporaries, albums had replaced singles as the music art form for young adults. Record labels recognised this and pumped money into LPs.

All this left something of a void, and you only have to look at some of the number 1s from the last two years to see that. One genre making waves in the singles chart was ‘bubblegum pop’, largely an invention by labels eager to fill a void. If the teenagers and beyond were mainly buying albums now, then that left a whole new generation to be persuaded into buying pop singles. Bubblegum pop songs tended to be short and upbeat. Gone were overt drug references. Producers were often in charge, churning out material by an assembly line of acts backed by session musicians. One of the most successful of 1969 was an American whose first hit was back in 1962.

Thomas Roe was born in May 1942 in Atlanta, Georgia. Upon graduating, he went to work for General Electric, where he soldered wires. By 1960 he had become Tommy Roe, and unusually, his first album was split between him and another singer, hence the name Whirling with Tommy Roe and Al Tornello. On the album were his first two singles, Caveman and Sheila, in which Roe mimicked the vocal stylings of Buddy Holly. Neither charted.

However, two years later, the latter was re-recorded, made the title track of his first full album, and became a resounding success. It topped the charts in the US, Canada and Australia, and reached number three in the UK. ABC-Paramount asked him to go on tour to promote it, but he was reluctant to give up his day job until they gave him an advance.

The Beatles were fans of Sheila, and began covering it. In early 1963, they supported Roe and Chris Montez on their joint headlining tour. The New Musical Express reported that both singers were being upstaged by John, Paul, George and Ringo. He had two further UK hits later that year – Everybody and The Folk Singer. Roe decided to move to London, but the Beat boom was happening so fast, he couldn’t keep up, and there were no further chart appearances on these shores, even though Sweet Pea and Hooray for Hazel did well elsewhere in 1966.

Then came Dizzy. Roe had co-written this pop tune about budding love with Freddy Weller, guitarist with US rock band Paul Revere & the Raiders. Weller had ambitions to be a solo artist, and around this time he released his debut single, a cover of Joe South’s Games People Play. Top US session musicians the Wrecking Crew provided the backing on Dizzy, including the late, great Hal Blaine on drums.

I adore Dizzy. But not this version. The first single I ever bought on cassette was the number 1 cover in 1991 by my favourite comedian at the time, Vic Reeves, with Brummie indie outfit the Wonder Stuff.

Roe’s Dizzy is a rare instance of an original being worse than a cover. I was so disappointed to hear a slight, awkward attempt at psychedelic pop, that is, by comparison, terribly leaden. Very odd for the Wrecking Crew to sound so dull. It has a slightly sickly feeling to it, making the title rather appropriate. Everything is slightly off, apart from Jimmie Haskell’s string arrangement, which was neatly copied in 1991.

Amazingly, six years after being upstaged, Roe got his revenge, and he knocked the Beatles from the top spot, and Dizzy went to pole position in the US and Canada too. Despite its weirdness, it was catchy enough to capture the public’s imagination after all. And yet, after one week, he was knocked off his perch by… the bloody Beatles.

Although Roe continued to have hits elsewhere, his chart action in the UK was soon over once more. Eventually he ended up on the nostalgia circuit with acts like Bobby Vee. In the late-1970s and 80s he moved into releasing country material.

Roe’s final album, Confectioner’s, was released in 2017. He announced his retirement on his Facebook page in 2018.

Written by: Tommy Roe & Freddy Weller

Producer: Steve Barri

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