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 

 

224. Jim Reeves – Distant Drums (1966)

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At 9.15am on 21 October in the mining village of Aberfan in Glamorgan, South Wales, pupils at Pantglas Junior School were just beginning their lessons. A large colliery spoil tip, high up on a mountain slope behind the village, suddenly turned into a slurry due to a period of heavy rain beforehand. Within five minutes, the slurry had engulfed the school, along with nearby houses and a farm. This tragic event resulted in the horrific deaths of 116 children and 28 adults. The TV footage of the incident makes for surreal, grim viewing.

That autumn had seen the singles chart ruled for 5 weeks by a man who had died two years previous. American country singer-songwriter Jim Reeves ruled over the charts with Distant Drums in the same surprising way that Ken Dodd had a year previous with Tears. Amid all the amazing, pioneering music coming thick and fast, the charts were suddenly owned by the old folk once more.

‘Gentleman Jim’ had been born in Galloway, Texas in August 1923. Known as Travis during his childhood, he loved to play baseball and spent three years in minor leagues before severing his sciatic nerve. As a sufferer of sciatica myself, I can only imagine this must have been really bloody painful.

Reeves avoided World War Two when he failed his physical exam in 1943, and so he began working as a radio announcer. A fan of popular singers like Frank Sinatra, Jimmie Rodgers and Bing Crosby, he would sometimes sing live in-between songs, and began to see a career in it.

By the early 1950s Reeves was doing well in the US charts. Bimbo reached number 1 in the country chart in 1954. His first and only album release for Abbott Records, Jim Reeves Sings, came in November 1955. By that point he had signed a ten-year deal with RCA Victor with Steve Sholes. That same year, Sholes signed Elvis Presley.

Like every other country and western performer of the era, Reeves’ earliest recordings had him adopting a loud, rather cliched Texan style, but over time he developed his trademark style, a smooth, warm and gentle baritone, his lips nearly touching the mic as he crooned. RCA executives thought this was a bad idea, but Reeves was lucky to have producer Chet Atkins on his side. The first example of this new approach, Four Walls, was a commercial hit for Reeves in 1957. Soon, other artists were adopting the same approach, and this gentle approach, together with lush arrangements, became known as the Nashville Sound.

As the 60s began Reeves scored big in the pop and country charts with He’ll Have to Go. From here on in his stature grew enormously worldwide, eclipsing his fame in the US, even. He was more popular than label mate Elvis in South Africa. Among his hits in the UK in 1963 was Welcome to My World, used in recent years in adverts for Thomson Holidays.

In an eerie foreshadowing of what was to come, the singer’s final session for RCA resulted in three songs – Make the World Go Away, Missing You and Is It Really Over? With tape left over, they cut one more track – I Can’t Stop Loving You, which had been a number 1 for Ray Charles in 1962.

On 31 July Reeves and his manager Dean Manuel (also the pianist in Reeves’ backing group, the Blue Boys) were flying over Brentwood, Tennessee when they encountered a violent thunderstorm. Two days later, after intense searching by friends including Marty Robbins, the wreckage was found, and by the afternoon, Gentleman Jim’s death was announced publicly.

Material by Reeves continued to be released after his untimely death, aged 40. Distant Drums was a song by country singer and dancer Cindy Walker. It had been recorded by Roy Orbison in 1963, but it is Reeves’ version that is remembered best.

So just how did Distant Drums not only make it to number 1, but hold court for five weeks? It’s really hard to say. It seems RCA had chosen to release it due to creeping anti-war sentiment over the situation in Vietnam, but I’m not sure you could describe it as an explicit protest song. Even if it was, surely there were more commercial examples of such a thing out there? The fact he was two years dead already means it wasn’t due to the strength of feeling after he was gone, either.

To be fair to Reeves, he never intended it as a single – it was merely meant as a demo, and had been tarted up with an orchestral backing. But lord, is it dull. I’m no country fan anyway, but it’s a B-side or album track at best. I’ve read that perhaps so many young bands were jockeying for the top spot at the time, Reeves’ single split the vote, but who knows? It’s another one of those chart mysteries.

On the final day of Distant Drums‘ number 1 reign, former chart-topper Alma Cogan, whose Dreamboat was number 1 in 1955, died of ovarian cancer aged only 34.

Written by: Cindy Walker

Producer: Chet Atkins

Weeks at number 1: 5 (22 September-26 October)

Births:

Prime Minister David Cameron – 9 October 
Footballer Tony Adams – 10 October

Deaths:

Singer Alma Cogan – 26 October 

194. Roger Miller – King of the Road (1965)

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It was well under a year since Labour narrowly got into power in the general election, but already the Conservatives were fighting back, making big gains in the local elections on 13 May. Four days later saw tragic events at Cambrian Colliery when an explosion killed 31 miners. On 19 May, West Ham United became only the second British club in history to win a European trophy, defeating West Germany 2-0 at Wembley Stadium to take the European Cup Winners’ Cup.

Toppling Ticket to Ride after three weeks was another song about travelling. Roger Miller’s charming country tale of a hobo, King of the Road was a very different beast, however.

Miller was born into poverty at the height of the Great Depression in January 1936 in Fort Worth, Texas. His mother died when he was only a year old. His father was unable to support the family and so Roger went to live with an aunt and uncle on a farm outside Erick, Oklahoma. Educated in a one-room schoolhouse, Miller was an introverted dreamer, and began making up songs from a young age. He fell in love with country music, and a relative bought him a fiddle. Desperate but broke, he stole a guitar when he was 17, but turned himself in the next day. He enlisted in the army to avoid jail, and while in service he became the fiddler in the Circle A Wranglers.

Upon leaving the army he moved to Nashville and auditioned for the influential Chet Atkins. He was so nervous he sang in two different keys, so Atkins asked him to come back later. Miller went to work at a hotel, where he was soon known as ‘the singing bellhop’. He met with George Jones and was introduced to music executives, but Miller chose to marry, start a family, and become a fireman. He later claimed he was only there for two fires, and slept through the second, so decided maybe music was the life for him after all. He returned to Nashville and soon found himself in demand as a songwriter, with Jim Reeves among those recording his material.

Miller signed with Decca Records in 1958, and then RCA Victor in 1960, but his waywardness increased, and despite growing success he ditched the songwriting, and his wife, and became a dedicated wild child instead. Eventually he had ambitions to become an actor, but was short of money and signed a deal with Smash Records in exchange for cash. He wrote Dang Me in four minutes, and both that and Chug-a-Lug were huge country hits and made the top ten in the Billboard chart. Miller had discovered a knack for writing simple, humorous country hits, and his career was transformed. When it came to writing King of the Road, he recalled driving one day and seeing a sign that read ‘Trailers for sale or rent’.

Despite being normally wary of country music, I don’t see how anyone could dislike King of the Road. At a push, you could argue that the life of a tramp is probably not half as fun as Miller’s song suggests. But it’s tough not to be won over by the imagery he conjures, and that weather-beaten, wry voice of his fits the character like a fingerless glove. It comes across like a not-too-distant cousin of Sixteen Tons, which had been a number 1 for Tennessee Ernie Ford ten years previous, due to the finger-clicking, dark humour and empathy for the underdog. The subject matter was also inspired by a hobo Miller met at an airport, and considering the singer-songwriter’s upbringing, it’s fair to say Miller identified with the tramp’s way of life. He wasn’t blindly romanticising such a lifestyle. I first became aware of this song thanks to REM, who disowned their cover.

The hits continued for Miller, including the wry, timely England Swings. 1967 saw his popularity wane though, and his TV series was also cancelled. In 1973 he voiced the rooster minstrel Allan-a-Dale in Disney’s animated animal version of Robin Hood. Much maligned over the years for looking cheap and ripping off earlier Disney features, I won’t have a bad word said about it. I saw it at a young age and will always have a soft spot for it, and that’s partly down to Miller’s three songs from the movie – Whistle-Stop, Oo-De-Lally and Not in Nottingham.

Miller stopped writing songs in 1978, but in the early 1980s he received an offer to write a score for a Broadway musical based on the 1884 novel Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. He had never read the book, but when he realised it was based in rural Oklahoma, he felt inspired once more. Opening in 1985, Big River was critically-acclaimed and Miller won the Tony Award for Best Score.

As the 90s began he co-wrote and provided backing vocals to Dwight Yoakam’s hit It Only Hurts When I Cry and embarked on a tour, but it was cut short the following year when he was diagnosed with lung cancer. Miller’s carefree past caught up with him, and he died in October 1992 aged 56.

Written by: Roger Miller

Producer: Jerry Kennedy

Weeks at number 1: 1 (13-19 May)

Births:

Journalist Christina Lamb – 15 May
Presenter Jeremy Vine – 17 May

192. Cliff Richard – The Minute You’re Gone (1965)

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Remember this guy? Cliff Richard? Biggest British pop star before the Beatles, had seven number 1s with the Shadows?

It’s often said that the Beatles and the other new groups of this era vanquished all who came before them, but it wasn’t as straightforward as that. Cliff was very much still a presence in the charts, and although his last number 1 was Summer Holiday in 1963, every song he had released since made it to the top ten.

Cliff had been a Jehovah’s Witness since 1961, but in 1964 he became an active Christian and joined evangelical group the Crusaders. This won’t have worked wonders for a rock’n’roll star at the time, but the hits continued. Not in the US though, where he could barely get noticed, save for a cover of It’s All in the Game (a UK number 1 for Tommy Edwards in 1958). His US label, Epic Records, wanted to change this, and met with Richard and his producer Norrie Paramor to sketch out plans, armed with 50 US songs to try. They picked 15, and Richard liked the idea of travelling to various American cities to record specific tracks. In Nashville, he recorded The Minute You’re Gone, which had been written by local fiddle player and singer Jimmy Gately, and became a country hit for Sonny James in 1963. The track was co-produced by Billy Sherrill, known for his work with Tammy Wynette and George Jones. Nashville-based musicians performed the backing, making Cliff’s eighth UK number 1 his first without Hank Marvin and co. The Anita Kerr singers provided backing vocals.

I was curious to hear this, wondering if it was going to be an exciting new development in the Cliff Richard sound. I should have known better. The Minute You’re Gone is a dull ballad, rendered even more bland by Richard’s safe delivery. He doesn’t exactly sound heartbroken here. Does he ever, though? The tune is very reminiscent of Ray Charles’ 1962 chart-topper I Can’t Stop Loving You, but not as good. Bring back the Shadows.

Although it brought him back to the number 1 position after two years away, The Minute You’re Gone ended a startling run of 23 consecutive top ten hits between 1960 and 1965. This is still a record for male artists, I believe. Cliff had somehow managed to make himself sound more dated than he sounded in 1963. To make things worse, he was knocked off the top by a single that made everyone look old-fashioned by comparison.

Written by: Jimmy Gately

Producer: Billy Sherrill & Bob Morgan

Weeks at number 1: 1 (15-21 April)

Deaths:

Physicist Sir Edward Victor Appleton – 21 April

153. Frank Ifield – Confessin’ (That I Love You) (1963)

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The 1963 Merseybeat marathon at the top of the charts took a brief pause that summer to allow two huge-selling artists return stints. The first was Australian yodelling country singer Frank Ifield, who prior to Merseybeat was the top music sensation. He’d had three number 1s, I Remember You and Lovesick Blues in 1962, and The Wayward Wind earlier this year, making him the first UK-based act to score three in a row.

Ifield’s schtick was to take an old song (usually a country one), make it sound (slightly) more modern, yodel as and when he saw fit, and then stick some harmonica over the top. Confessin’ (That I Love You) was more of the same, but this time Ifield was covering a jazz standard. Originally credited to Chris Smith and Sterling Grant, the song was called Lookin’ For Another Sweetie and was first recorded by Thomas ‘Fats’ Waller & His Babies in 1929. The following year it was rewritten as Confessin’, with new lyrics from Al J Neiburg and the music credited to Doc Daugherty and Ellis Reynolds.

By now, you’d think this formula would have looked stale, but Confessin’ (That I Love You) was popular enough to keep Ifield at the top one last time, for a month. It’s the least listenable of a mixed, occasionally bizarre bunch of tunes. It sounds very old-fashioned… but it’s not terrible. I’m always a sucker for some harmonica, and I love the unusual, which is probably the best way to describe Ifield’s yodelling on this song. A strange part of me enjoyed it, but I doubt I’ll be listening to it again.

By and large, the record buyers out there at the time were thinking the same thing, and Ifield became the first (and most recent) star to feel the effects of the sea change in the pop world.  Which was kind of ironic, as John Lennon admitted the Beatles used harmonica so much at the time because of Ifield. Bizarrely, both acts featured together on a cheap US compilation from Vee-Jay Records called Jolly What! England’s Greatest Recording Stars: The Beatles and Frank Ifield on Stage. The ‘copulation’, as it was accidentally called in the sleeve notes, featured Ifield hits alongside the second and third Beatles singles, plus their B-sides. Needless to say, the title was misleading, and the acts were not performing together.

Ifield’s singles started to perform badly by the middle of the decade, and he began appearing in pantomimes and faded into obscurity, eventually returning to Australia. In 1991, a bizarre dance remix of She Taught Me How to Yodel was released and credited to Frank Ifield and the Backroom Boys. I’m not sure I’ve heard the correct version, but several remixes are on YouTube, and they’re all predictably odd. Nowadays he tours Australia with  performances of his hits and memories of his years as a pop star.

This song also marked the end of an era for his producer Norrie Paramor. He had first produced a number 1 back in 1954 – Eddie Calvert’s Oh Mein Papa. Back then, the term ‘producer’ didn’t even exist. Paramor had been behind over 20 number 1s at this point. His story wasn’t over yet, but his peak years now came to an end, with George Martin taking over as the most important producer in the UK.

Written by: Al J Neiburg, Doc Daugherty & Ellis Reynolds

Producer: Norrie Paramor

Weeks at number 1: 2 (18-31 July)

Births:

Chess player Julian Hodgson – 25 July
Norman Cook, aka DJ Fatboy Slim – 31 July

147. Frank Ifield – The Wayward Wind (1963)

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Aussie-born yodelling superstar Frank Ifield’s third and penultimate number 1 was a step back from the unrestrained lunacy of Lovesick Blues. Unlike that and I Remember You, The Wayward Wind was a cover of a more recent track. Written by Stanley Lebowsky and Herb Newman, it was first recorded in 1956 by US singer Gogi Grant, who took it to number 1 in the US. The Beatles had recently featured it in their live sets of 1960 and 61, but no versions survive. By reaching number 1 once more, Ifield became the first UK-based act to have three chart-toppers in a row, and he momentarily broke up the seemingly endless Shadows-related number 1s of early 1963.

You can see why the Beatles would cover this, as you’d be forgiven for thinking it was one of their early singles at the start thanks to the earthy harmonica refrain. It’s catchy and easily the best element of the song. Then the swirling strings begin and you know this must be produced by Norrie Paramor. I’ve lost count of how many number 1s he’s been responsible for by now but it’ll be by far the most to date. However, he would soon be overtaken by George Martin. Then Ifield starts singing… I enjoyed his barmy performance of Lovesick Blues, but he misjudged this one. His overly-mannered performance is reminiscent of something ten years previous. He sounds like Frankie Laine, or Jimmy Young on his awful The Man from Laramie. It’s no surprise to see he released a version of his own in 1956.

With a title like The Wayward Wind, it’s tempting to make a joke about Ifield having some sort of stomach issue, which would possibly explain his yodelling too, but I wouldn’t do that… no, this song is about a roamer who’s left a broken heart behind. It may be Ifield’s worst number 1 yet, but you’ll be humming that harmonica part for a while afterwards.

Written by: Stanley Lebowsky & Herb Newman

Producer: Norrie Paramor

Weeks at number 1: 3 (21 February-13 March)

Births:

Politician Baron Andrew Adonis – 22 February
Actress Alex Kingston – 11 March 

142. Frank Ifield – Lovesick Blues (1962)

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Seaham lifeboat made the news on 17 November when it capsized as it entered harbour. Sadly, all five crew members and four of the five survivors were killed. A week later saw the first episode of the influential BBC satirical show That Was the Week That Was. TW3, as it was also known, broke new ground with its lack of deference towards establishment figures. Although it only ran for two series, it remains one of the most important shows of all time, and a list of its stars and writers reads like a who’s who of 1960s comedy. On 29 November, an agreement was signed between Britain and France to develop the supersonic airliner that became famously known as Concorde. The week beginning 2 December saw a severe outbreak of smog in the capital, causing numerous deaths. This was the last time it caused such damage, as clean air legislation and a reduction in coal fires helped prevent it in future. Meanwhile, in the singles chart, Australian yodeller repeated the huge success of 1962’s biggest-selling single I Remember You with his manic cover of Lovesick Blues.

The music to this 1922 song came from Tin Pan Alley songwriter Cliff Friend, with lyrics from Irving Mills, and the tune, originally called I’ve Got the Lovesick Blues, was debuted in the musical Oh, Ernest. Friend had been a fighter pilot in World War One and had plenty of conversations with lovesick young men who were longing to see their sweethearts when the war was over. The first version was recorded by Elsie Clark, but one of the more notable covers came from country star Hank Williams. Williams’ producer and band thought it was a bad idea, but he gained a huge reaction whenever he performed the song live. Lovesick Blues became his first number 1, and a signature song for him. It was Northern Irish singer Ronnie Carroll who suggested Ifield should make it his follow-up to I Remember You.

Despite I Remember You being more famous, I prefer Lovesick Blues. Primarily because Ifield’s performance is a bit mad. Producer Norrie Paramor seems to have decided Ifield’s yodel had made him the star he had become, and so gave him free rein to break out into it wherever he saw fit. And he does it a lot. Ifield doesn’t sound lovesick, but he definitely doesn’t sound well. Paramor’s arrangement also echews any element of melancholy, and he ramps up the arrangement to the point it sounds like a brassy, bawdy sitcom theme. The whole thing is reminiscent of Frankie Vaughn’s unhinged Tower of Strength. I can’t imagine I’ll ever listen to it again, but I enjoyed its weirdness nonetheless.

Written by: Cliff Friend & Irving Mills

Producer: Norrie Paramor

Weeks at number 1: 5 (8 November-12 December)

Births:

Journalist Mariella Frostrup – 12 November 
Actress Maggie O’Neill – 15 November 
Footballer Alan Smith – 21 November 
Actress Samantha Bond – 27 November
Actor Colin Salmon – 6 December