Every 60s Number 1

The Intro 

I’ve done it. 186 blogs in 17 months and I’ve now reviewed all the chart-toppers in that most incredible decade of transformation in pop culture. It’s been fascinating, exciting, dreary and terrifying at times, and sometimes, while listening to songs such as Cinderella Rockefeller, it’s been all those things at once.

The 60s, pre-Beatles, is an era I knew little about, so I suspected this could prove as enlightening as my reviews of the 50s, but I was surprised to learn so much once The Beatles invaded the charts too. Their impact in 1963 and 64 was even bigger than I’d ever imagined, and their move into a more ‘mature’ sound would effect the singles charts of their later years too, but detrimentally.

To commemorate reaching the end, it’s only right that I repeat what I did with Every 50s Number 1, and relisten to them all once more, before deciding on the best and worst of each year, and whittling them down even more to the best and worst of the whole decade.

Despite knowing and loving much of this music so much, I admit to being a bit nervous. How do I choose between some of the greatest bands and songs the world has ever seen? Only one way to find out…

1960

They say that it takes a few years for a decade to get started, and it’s certainly true in the case of the swinging 60s. The music from the dawn of the decade is mostly a hangover from the fag ends of the initial burst of rock’n’roll. There’s a strange short-lived fad at the start of the year for cockney pop by Adam Faith and Anthony Newley (a big influence on early David Bowie). Things don’t really get going until May when the Everly Brothers return to the top with The pioneering drum sound of Cathy’s Clown. This was followed by the first posthumous chart-topper – Eddie Cochrane’s Three Steps to Heaven. Legendary singer-songwriter Roy Orbison makes his number 1 debut with the classic melancholy of Only the Lonely (Know How I Feel). There’s also a great comeback from Elvis Presley with It’s Now or Never. Less impressive were Cliff Richard and The Shadows’ two number 1s together. Weirdest? That can only be Johnny Preston’s bizarre tail of the love between a cowboy and indian, Running Bear.

The Best:

Johnny Kidd & The Pirates – Shakin’ All Over: This could and arguably should have been The Shadows’ surprisingly edgy and menacing Apache, which is a true pre-Beatles classic and hugely influential on pop, rock and even hip-hop. But just pipping it for me was this raunchy, dangerous slice of British rock’n’roll. The band brought theatrics into their live shows and inspired The Who, among others, plus it features number 1 session drumming legend Clem Cattini.

The Worst:

Lonnie Donegan – My Old Man’s a Dustman (Ballad of a Refuse Disposal Officer): How quickly the mighty can fall. In Every 50s Number 1, the ‘King of Skiffle’ Lonnie Donegan’s incendiary performance of Cumberland Gap was my runner-up for number 1 of the decade. Three years after inspiring some of the future decade’s brightest talents, he was performing this music-hall rubbish in a live recording from Doncaster. Terrible, terrible jokes littered throughout. Shame.

1961

A bumper crop and a real mixed bag. The women finally get a look in, featuring a young Petula Clark, Shirley Bassey and Helen Shapiro, but I have to say none of these tracks impressed. Elvis had started his ‘will this do?’ era, but Are You Lonesome Tonight? still hits the spot and (Marie’s the Name) His Latest Flame deserves a mention. Wooden Heart does not. His sometime pianist Floyd Cramer’s On the Rebound is still full of vim and vigour. The Everlys bow out with Temptation, a nice atmospheric number. There’s a lot of oddities about, and they’re mostly good, particularly the gothic melancholic pomp of Johnny Remember Me. Blue Moon is a lot of fun, as is the demented wailing of Frankie Vaughan on Tower of Strength.

The Best:

Danny Williams – Moon River: Not for the last time I found myself torn between a song that pushes the boundaries of pop and a simple, much-loved standard. This time the former, Del Shannon’s still-popular Runaway fell behind the timeless beauty of the South African singer’s take on Moon River, number 1 that Christmas.

The Worst:

Shirley Bassey – Climb Ev’ry Mountain: The veteran Welsh singer is loved for her powerful voice, but it not only leaves me cold most of the time, I find it painful, and this is her at her wailiest (it’s a word, now) over a very boring track. I was very tempted to throw my headphones across the garden when I got to the final note.

1962

The first sighting of what may have been had The Beatles not arrived. Frank Ifield was the year’s biggest star, with his penchant for amusing yodelling over two number 1s, and was still going strong until the rise of Merseybeat. Elvis’s bestsellers range from the dire to classics – even within a single release. Cliff Richard and The Shadows return with strong material, The Young Ones and Wonderful Land respectively. The country-soul of I Can’t Stop Loving You is far from Ray Charles’s best work, but I confess it’s grown on me a little. Nut Rocker is ace, and is fully deserving of its ubiquitous usage in TV and film.

The Best:

Elvis Presley with The Jordanaires – Can’t Help Falling in Love: Like 1961, this was tough. I very nearly picked the quirky space race euphoria of The Tornados’ Telstar. Joe Meek was innovating pop before The Beatles, and despite Telstar being famous, I can’t help but think it’s still a little underrated. However, once more, the timeless pop ballad wins out – am I getting soft in my old age? Perhaps, but how can I deny the brilliance of one of the finest love songs ever written? There are many versions, but none compare to Elvis’s. I’m far from his biggest fan at times but this is pure gold. That the flip side of this is the awful Rock-A-Hula Baby (“Twist” Special) makes it all the more remarkable.

The Worst:

Mike Sarne with Wendy Richard – Come Outside: Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for a bit of Carry On humour, and it’s wrong to expect a song from 1962 to live up to the political correctness of the #metoo era, but Come Outside is woeful. Sarne’s flat vocal irritates, Richard is charmless, and it’s all a bit, well, rapey. The rhythm track isn’t bad, though.

1963

Never has a year in pop seen such a seismic shift. For the first third it’s very similar to the year before with appearances from Cliff (Summer Holiday is still a lovely blast of pop), The Shadows and Frank Ifield, and then Merseybeat happens, and things change forever. It’s nearly always The Beatles, acts performing Lennon-McCartney tunes (Billy J Kramer with The Dakotas) or inferior copycats (Brian Poole and The Tremeloes). Bar one good single from Elvis, (You’re the) Devil in Disguise, US artists don’t get a look in. None of these other groups can match The Beatles, although Gerry and the Pacemakers have some decent material with their hat trick of bestsellers. A lot of Merseybeat is too twee for me to really get into, but some of the greatest pop songs of all time are right around the corner now. Exciting times!

The Best:

The Beatles – She Loves You: The Fab Four shook things up like no act before or since in 1963, and that’s largely due to this, the decade’s biggest-selling 7″. The chorus of She Loves You is lightning in a bottle, pure unbridled joy and ecstacy, and it sparked a thousand imitations. From Me to You is nice enough, and I Want to Hold Your Hand showed new maturity in their songwriting, but this is easily their finest early song. And the lyrics are smart too, moving away from the template of ‘I love you’ and introducing a third party. I’ve always loved She Loves You, but hearing it arrive in the context of this blog increases my respect for it even more.

The Worst:

The Shadows – Dance On!: Cliff Richards’ sometime backing band’s impressive run of number 1s with him and alone came to an end this year, with tracks ranging from the great (Apache) and the good (Wonderful Land) to this, which isn’t awful, it’s just incredibly boring and leaves no mark on me whatsoever. Adding an exclamation mark to the end of the title doesn’t make me any more enthusiastic, either.

1964

An incredible year of number 1s. I envy anyone who lived through this. In fact, listening to them all in one stint, I’d say there’s a very strong argument that this is the high watermark for number 1s. Merseybeat mutates and expands in strange and exciting ways, most notably the momentous folk-rock classic The House of the Rising Sun by The Animals, meaning that the legendary Bob Dylan’s influence was now being felt on these shores. Then The Rolling Stones made their debut (It’s All Over Now), and became so popular, they got a blues cover to the top (Little Red Rooster)! Roy Orbison bows out by getting the girl at last with the brilliant Oh, Pretty Woman. Joe Meek had his third and final chart-topper too, producing The Honeycombs’ insanely underrated Have I the Right?. Women make their belated return, with Sandie Shaw and Cilla Black both topping the charts with two songs by the masterly Burt Bacharach and Hal David – ((There’s) Always Something There to Remind Me and Anyone Who Had a Heart), and The Supremes had their sole UK number 1. As for the Fab Four, well, there’s three classics from them, in particular A Hard Day’s Night. But they don’t win this time.

The Best:

The Kinks – You Really Got Me: Facing incredibly strong competition, Muswell Hill’s finest were my choice, because despite all the other great tunes in 64, it was this primal expression of pure animal lust that pretty much kickstarted rock and heavy metal. Ray Davies may have become one of our wittiest, most quintessentially English songwriters, but The Kinks perhaps never bettered this scorching slab of raunch.

The Worst:

The Bachelors – Diane: A staid, old-fashioned, boring ballad from Ireland’s original boy band. Wouldn’t have sounded out of place 10 years previous (it actually dates back to 1927. That’s right, it’s even worse than Billy J Kramer with The Dakotas’ Little Children, because at least that had a tune.

1965

Tons of pop gold again, but stylistically more varied than the previous year. More strong material from The Kinks and the Stones, and one of the finest epic break-up songs of all time – namely The Righteous Brothers’ You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’. On a similar note, I’ve always loved The Moody Blues’ version of Go Now that preceded it. We’re starting to see the rise of the hippy movement – hair is getting longer, and the lush jangle of Mr Tambourine Man marks another sea change. Cynics may balk at Sonny & Cher’s I Got You Babe, but I think it holds up well, as does the debut of Tom Jones with his anthem It’s Not Unusual. Four songs from The Beatles, all of them – Ticket to Ride, Help! and Day Tripper/We Can Work It Out, among their finest work, in particular Ticket to Ride. The latter, and Day Tripper, are built around some of the finest riffs in existence. And yet, and yet… Ticket to Ride is just trumped by perhaps the greatest riff there has ever been.

The Best:

The Rolling Stones – (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction: It was as close a call as it’s possible to have, but for once in my life, I’m choosing the Stones over The Beatles. Keith Richards’ legendary riff, allegedly created in his sleep and intended for horns, never dates and combined with Mick Jagger’s frustrated world view make for a dream combination. After paying homage to the blues time and again, this saw the birth of Jagger and Richards as songwriters to rival Lennon and McCartney.

The Worst:

Cliff Richard – The Minute You’re Gone: Oh Cliff. Behind the times as early as 1965. And what does he do, to counteract Beatlemania? He abandons The Shadows, perhaps a shrewd move to appear ahead of the curve? Oh, he’s gone and recorded an old-fashioned country song from 1963. Never the genre’s biggest fan, this sounds like a pale imitation of I Can’t Stop Loving You. Ken Dodd’s huge-selling Tears may have also sounded like a relic, but at least the chorus was catchy.

1966

The last of the peak years of the decade, before albums began to overtake singles in importance. In general, a superlative blend of pop and the rise of drugs and psychedelia in music. British pop now striding into a bold, experimental future, and combined with England winning the World Cup, there was an overwhelming sense of optimism and pride in the UK. The Beatles were approaching the peak of their abilities in the studio, and minds must have been blown by their dark ode to the lonely, Eleanor Rigby. As startling a song as it is, I’ve always found it easier to admire than to enjoy. I’d take previous single Paperback Writer over that, and wish their jangly guitar era had lasted a bit longer. 66 got off to a blistering start with the Spencer Davis Group’s still storming Keep on Running, and Nancy Sinatra helped shape modern female pop with the sassy cool of These Boots Are Made for Walkin’… yet Dusty Springfield’s only number 1, You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me is uncharacteristically pleading. By and large, 1966 is another embarrassment of riches, particularly The Rolling Stones’ apocalyptic Paint It, Black, almost their best song ever. The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore, Sunny Afternoon, Reach Out, I’ll Be There… all classics. It would take a very special song to shine above all these.

The Best:

The Beach Boys – Good Vibrations: And a very special song this is. That’s right, Brian Wilson’s ‘pocket symphony’ means that I haven’t picked any number 1s by The Beatles during their peak years, which is probably the biggest surprise I’ve had since starting this blog. What it does prove is that the Fab Four inspired their contemporaries to do better than them. Had they not released their landmark album Revolver, we may never have had the finest three-plus minutes of The Beach Boys’ career, which in turn spurred the Beatles on to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. But anyway… in a year of great tunes and studio innovation, The Beach Boys combined both beautifully, devoting as much time to Good Vibrations as lesser bands would to entire albums. The peak of Brian Wilson’s creativity. The only downside being the burn-out that followed recording their next LP.

The Worst:

Jim Reeves – Distant Drums: Released two years after the US country star’s untimely death, this was a bizarre number 1 to have in 1966, particularly for five weeks. It’s unclear why it was considered single-worthy, as it’s more B-side material, and it’s completely out-of-step with prevailing trends. But the anti-war message may have resonated with Vietnam in mind, and it probably gave succour to old folk baffled by yellow submarines et al. Not awful, like some of the other dire material I’ve mentioned, just out of place.

1967

The tectonic plates of British music and culture shifted once more this year, only not as much as you might imagine in the singles chart. As some of the most famous acts concentrated on complex psychedelic LPs influenced by the rise in LSD, the 7″ chart was largely dominated by light entertainment acts – the most since 1962. Top of the pops was smoother-than-smooth balladeer Engelbert Humperdinck, who enjoyed 11 weeks at number 1 and famously, criminally, prevented Penny Lane/Strawberry Fields Forever with Release Me. Other than the pop brilliance of The Monkees’ I’m a Believer, nothing remotely hippy-like gets a look in until the Summer of Love finally gets underway that June with Procul Harum’s earnest and excellent lysergic standard A Whiter Shade of Pale. Only two other, wholly appropriate chart-toppers followed – The Beatles anthem All You Need Is Love and Scott McKenzie’s dreamy San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair), before Humperdinck brought everything down to earth again. We say hello to the Bee Gees for the first time with the lovely Massachusetts, and goodbye to Nancy and Frank Sinatra, with their ‘incest anthem’ Somethin’ Stupid. All in all, 1967 was a surprising letdown.

The Best:

The Beatles – Hello, Goodbye: This isn’t even the best Beatles single of 1967, but thanks to Humperdinck, I can’t rate Strawberry Fields Forever. So I’m settling for this instead, which may seem controversial when lined up against A Whiter Shade of Pale, but personally I love Hello, Goodbye. I rated it the best Christmas number 1 of the 60s here, and I stand by it. It’s infectious, upbeat and catchy, and the finale is as joyous as the chorus to She Loves You if you’re in the right mood. The B-side, I Am the Walrus, is better, though.

The Worst:

Sandie Shaw – Puppet on a String: The famously barefooted singer hated this song, which was our first ever Eurovision winner – and I don’t blame her, because it’s awful and I’m betting it did her career lasting damage. The lyrics are awful, the tune is demented and it makes me want to pull my teeth out and feed them to sparrows.

1968

Stylistically speaking, 1968 is all over the place when it comes to number 1s. The main trend among the bigger bands this year was to adopt a back-to-basics approach as a reaction to flower power. The Beatles led the way, as usual, but Lady Madonna doesn’t match up to The Rolling Stones’ rocking, witty comeback single Jumpin’ Jack Flash, and Do It Again is a bit of a letdown after Good Vibrations, even if the drumbeat proved pioneering. There’s still room for psychedelia in the charming theatrical demonic pomp of Fire by The Crazy World of Arthur Brown, but then there are some number 1s that are downright odd more than anything, such as The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, and particularly Cinderella Rockefeller, with its deranged yodelling and godawful rickety tune. I loved the Bee Gees’ I’ve Gotta Get a Message to You and Louis Armstrong’s What a Wonderful World, an evergreen classic which gave Satchmo a chart-topper shortly before his death. Cliff finally remembered how to record a catchy tune and whatever you think of Eurovision runner-up Congratulations, you can’t deny its popularity.

The Best:

The Beatles – Hey Jude: In much the same way John Lennon’s Imagine is now considered uncool, it seems to be the done thing to slate McCartney’s lengthy classic, but I’m having none of it. It’s soulful and poignant, written for Julian Lennon when his parents were splitting, and its universal message of the power and importance of love speaks more to me than the simplistic sloganeering of All You Need Is Love. The Beatles may have been already splitting at this point, but there was still plenty of magic in the tank.

The Worst:

Des O’Connor – I Pretend: This could so easily have been the profoundly irritating Cinderella Rockefeller, but that at least had a memorable hook, albeit a very irritating one. No, this is as bland as they get, sang with no soul or meaning whatsoever. He’s supposed to be broken-hearted, but he sounds like he’s having a great time. I like Des, but I get why Morecambe and Wise ripped the piss so much now.

1969

The end of an era in more ways than one as we say farewell to The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. Despite the fact Abbey Road is one of their finest albums, The Beatles’ singles before its release weren’t them at their best, leaving The Ballad of John and Yoko a rather odd way to bow out of the blog. Honky Tonk Women was more appropriate, showing the future for the Stones as the archetypal good-time rock band of the 70s and beyond that they became. For the first time, album sales outpaced singles, as the teens of the mid-60s grew up and moved on to LPs. This left a gap, to be filled by inferior bubblegum pop, resulting in Sugar Sugar by The Archies becoming the year’s biggest seller. Other than that, it’s another mixed bag, like 1968. Some of the highlights include the tranquil Albatross by the original incarnation of Fleetwood Mac and Something in the Air by Thunderclap Newman. Lots of great tracks from overseas acts too, particularly the horny Je t’aime… moi non plus by Jane Birkin and Serge Gainsbourg, plus the apocalyptic boogie of Bad Moon Rising by Creedence Clearwater Revival and ska pioneer Desmond Dekker’s Israelites.

The Best:

Marvin Gaye – I Heard it Through the Grapevine: Originally recorded in 1967, Motown boss Berry Gordy Jr was uncharacteristically blind to the greatness of Gaye’s version of this track. Slowing things down, adding an incredibly cool bass line for the intro, and singing with the kind of feeling that was completely alien to the likes of Engelbert Humperdinck and Des O’Connor, this is soul music at its finest, and peak Motown. To hear just how stunning Gaye is here, check out this clip that’s currently doing the rounds online, which isolates the vocal. Spine-tingling.

The Worst:

Rolf Harris – Two Little Boys: Had I been deciding this before Harris was outed as a paedophile, I’d have said Zager & Evans deserved it, because I, like so many others, had a soft spot for Two Little Boys. Now obviously it just leaves a very sour taste, and it’s a downbeat way to end the decade.

The Best 60s Number 1 Ever is…

The Beatles – She Loves You: It was always going to be the Fab Four, wasn’t it? They’re the greatest group of all time, so it’s a no-brainer. However, I’d be lying if I said She Loves You has always been my favourite Beatles single. I’d probably say Strawberry Fields Forever or Something, but of course neither went to number 1. But it would be wrong to make my choices for best and worst chart-toppers of each decade simply my favourite. I also look at the impact of each song, ine innovation and the influence it had, as well as the catchiness of the chorus. She Loves You easily covers all three bases. It’s modern music’s ‘big bang’ moment, and as I’ve said before about this and other legendary number 1s, it’s listening to them in the context of this blog that really separates the wheat from the chaff, and Every UK Number 1 has truly brought home what a monumental few minutes of pop music The Beatles conjured up here. What alchemy.

But also, what competition, what an often astounding selection of songs I was honoured to listen to and choose from. It could just as easily been You Really Got Me or (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction, but in the end She Loves You got there first and laid the groundwork that allowed all the other classics to be made in the first place.

The Worst 60s Number 1 Ever is…

The Bachelors – Diane: You could argue it’s unfair to single out Diane because it was number 1 in a year full of brilliance. I’d argue that’s exactly why I’ve given it this dubious honour. It spoiled my listening experience and stuck out like a sore thumb! Its dull tweeness would have earned it a slating if it had been released in 1954. 10 years later, it’s unforgivable really. And if they were the first Irish boyband, well, that’s nothing to be proud of, is it?

The 60s were the decade in which pop came of age and became an integral part of the youth movement. From the dreariness of post-rock’n’roll, to Merseybeat, to the British Invasion, to psychedelia, to bubblegum pop and rock, music mutated rapidly, thanks in large to The Beatles, but also The Beach Boys, The Kinks, The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, and more. Reviewing each number 1 in turn was really fascinating, and has increased my knowledge of the decade greatly, and for me the most interesting parts were just how much Merseybeat completely upturned the charts, and how little impact psychedelia actually had in 1967, due to the rise in popularity of albums.

So obviously it’s the 70s next. The decade in which I was born, albeit very late in the decade (1979). Pop changed and changed again here too, many times, and it was an often dark and turbulent decade in the news, so I can’t wait to get stuck in once more.

Blogs on every 60s number 1 are available to view via the Archive section.

99. Lonnie Donegan – My Old Man’s a Dustman (Ballad of a Refuse Disposal Officer) (1960)

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Following Johnny Preston’s Running Bear, the charts took another strange turn. ‘King of Skiffle’ Lonnie Donegan was back, but skiffle wasn’t. It burnt out not long after his second number 1, Gamblin’ Man/Puttin’ On the Style in 1957. So what style was Donegan putting on now? Sadly, it was music hall.

My Old Man’s a Dustman (Ballad of a Refuse Disposal Officer) had its origins in the song My Old Man’s a Fireman (On the Elder Dempster Line), which was a student’s union song in Birmingham before becoming popular with soldiers during World War One. Donegan and his band would perform this on stage, and at some point some foolish A&R man told him he thought it could be a hit. The band adapted it, and once they had enough to work with, decided to record it.

My Old Man’s a Dustman (Ballad of a Refuse Disposal Officer) was credited to Donegan and his road manager Peter Buchanan. After its original release, Beverley Thorn also received a credit. Thorn was in fact a pseudonym for Leslie Bricusse, who was soon to enjoy a fruitful writing partnership with Anthony Newley. Why Beverley Thorn? No idea.  The single was recorded live at Gaumont Cinema in Doncaster, Yorkshire, on 20 February, and released a month later, hitting the top very quickly. Why? Again, no idea.

The fact a man responsible for pioneering music like Rock Island Line and Cumberland Gap should become best known for such a dire song is criminal. My Old Man’s a Dustman (Ballad of a Refuse Disposal Officer) should have remained a live skit and nothing more. Now obviously, it made him number 1 for a third time, and opened him up to a new audience, but the release shocked hardcore skiffle fans, and did his credibility no good at all. I have to side with the skiffle fans. I’m no purist, and I have plenty of time for comedy songs too, but I can’t hear anything funny here at all. For example:

‘Lonnie: I say, I say, I say!
Les: Huh?
Lonnie: My dustbin’s full of lilies
Les: Well throw ’em away then!
Lonnie: I can’t: Lily’s wearing them’

Clearly music hall still had a place in the 60s. In fact it was still popular into the 80s, judging by the success of the BBC’s The Good Old Days. Also, Donegan released this at exactly the right time, as, with Adam Faith and Anthony Newley scoring two number 1s each, cockney singers were clearly the in thing. But that craze died down very soon, and by 1962, as several of the acts inspired by him began to make waves, Donegan fell out of favour with mainstream audiences, and he turned to producing instead.

In the mid-70s he temporarily reunited with the rest of the Chris Barber Band, but was waylaid by a heart attack in 1976. Two years later, his album Putting On the Style featured re-recordings of his old tracks, with backing from big names such as Ringo Starr, Brian May and Elton John.

By the end of the millennium, Donegan had the reputation of a music legend, appearing at Glastonbury Festival in 1999 and becoming an MBE in 2000. However, he had continued to suffer heart problems, and passed away on 3 November 2002 at the age of 71.

Lonnie Donegan has been one of the revelations of this blog for me. Although highly-regarded at the end of his life, I feel he should be considered more important for his influence on British music. Had it not been for his incendiary recordings and shows in the mid-50s, The Beatles, The Who and Led Zeppelin may not have existed, and we may have been permanently stuck with the safe pop and easy listening that was so popular in 1960. Cumberland Gap was a very close runner-up for the best number 1 of the 50s, as I stated here. It’s best to remember him for that, and look upon My Old Man’s a Dustman (Ballad of a Refuse Disposal Officer) as a bad joke that got out of hand.

Written by: Lonnie Donegan, Peter Buchanan & Beverly Thorn

Producers: Alan A Freeman & Michael Barclay

Weeks at number 1: 4 (31 March-27 April)

Births:

Athlete Linford Christie – 2 April
Soprano Jane Eaglen – 4 April
Presenter Jeremy Clarkson – 11 April
Chef Gary Rhodes – 22 April
Duran Duran drummer Roger Taylor – 26 April
Author Ian Rankin – 28 April 

Meanwhile…

1 April: A Mr Bill Griggs of Northampton began marketing Dr Martens boots on 1 April.

8 April: The Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh had their second son christened as Andrew Albert Christian Edward.

17 April: The music world was shocked when US rock’n’roll star Eddie Cochran, who was touring Britain, was killed in a car crash in Wiltshire. There’ll be more on him in a future blog.

Every 50s Number 1

The Intro

So, my first decade of number 1s is finished, 94 songs and seven months later. When I decided to review every UK number 1, I considered taking a random approach, but I decided starting right from the beginning would give me a wider knowledge of the progression of pop and pop culture in the UK. I did find the idea of kicking off with the 50s a potentially arduous task, however. Although there are exceptions, my interest in music tends to really start in 1963 with The Beatles’ first album, and I know I’m not alone in feeling like that. I feared starting with the 50s would put some readers off. Also, it’s the decade that’s as far out of my comfort zone as I’m going to get with this mammoth blog task I’ve set myself.

Except maybe it isn’t.

The older I get (38 currently), I feel I’m going to really struggle with the 2010s. Don’t understand the kids of today, cannot stand autotune, etc… Anyway, I find myself getting more out of the 50s far more than I initially expected. It’s still music I find myself respecting rather than enjoying, and there haven’t been many I’ll be downloading for future listens I have to confess, but it has been a fascinating journey, and I’m surprised at how much music changed from 1952 to 1959.

Before I finish with the decade and move on to the swinging 60s, I decided it would be nice to (kind-of) repeat the task I set myself in December. Back then I listened to every Christmas number 1 in order, in one session, and decided on a best and worst for each decade, before coming up with an overall best and worst. That blog seemed to generate a lot of interest, so I thought I’d do the same with the 50s. I decided against listening to all 94 songs in one go, that seemed a little bit much, so I decided to take it a year at a time.

1952/53

Where it all began. As Al Martino’s Here in My Heart was the only number 1 of 1952, I’ve lumped it in with 1953. It’s neither the best nor worst of what followed. In general, the record-buying public will still in thrall of string-laden love songs, often melancholy, overwrought ballads, with the emphasis on how well the singer could hold a note. Form over content. Not the kind of music that floats my boat, really. It was less than ten years since World War Two, and music fans still liked to wade through syrupy songs of missing loved ones abroad. In 1953’s defence, though, at least it had a healthy amount of female singers topping the charts. Once rock’n’roll takes hold, they largely disappeared bar a few exceptions. There’s some strange novelty songs in there that you wouldn’t think of as chart-toppers – see (How Much is) That Doggie in the Window? and the un-PC She Wears Red Feathers. Frankie Laine dominated that year.

The Best:

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Kay Starr – Comes A-Long A-Love: Only three tracks in and already there were elements of a rock’n’roll sound mixed in with jazz. This took me by surprise, and it was more than welcome. Kay Starr’s strong vocal mixed with a breezy tune had a vital element missing from other songs that year – fun.

The Worst:

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David Whitfield with Stanley Black & His Orchestra – Answer Me: This is the decade at its least appealing to me. It’s so leaden and dreary. Whitfield’s vocals are too affected and operatic. The Frankie Laine version was better, but not by much, as it’s a pretty poor song anyway.

1954

Generally more of the same, but of a higher standard. Doris Day, Frank Sinatra and even Vera Lynn all make appearances, but they’re not their finest works. Rosemary Clooney’s jolly old knees-up about death, This Ole House is one of the highlights. A couple of instrumentals make it big, one good (Winifred Atwell’s Let’s Have Another Party), one not so good (Eddie Calvert’s Oh Mein Papa)

The Best:

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Johnnie Ray – Such a Night: Mr Emotion was probably the revelation of the decade for me. Previously I only knew him for his namecheck in Come On Eileen, and that Morrissey used to wear hearing aid in tribute to him.  I referred to him as the ‘prototype eccentric rock’n’roll star’, and his three number 1s were all unique forerunners of the music that was to follow. This one in particular must have sounded pretty racy at the time, and contained the first hint of sex, one of pop’s key ingredients.

The Worst:

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The Stargazers with Syd Dean & His Orchestra –  I See the Moon: This is genuinely offensive to my ears. At the time it was considered a comedy song. Praise be that comedy has moved on from ‘funny’ voices. It’s the audio equivalent of Colin Hunt from The Fast Show. When I first heard this I said the Stargazers sounded pissed-up and tone deaf. Nothing has happened to change my mind. Six weeks at the top of the charts?!

1955

The year of mambo, and Bill Haley. Perez ‘Prez’ Prado rules the roost when it comes to the former, with his version of Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White beating Eddie Calvert’s safer cover. Rosemary Clooney’s Mambo Italiano may not be the real deal but it’s a fun spoof. Tony Bennett makes his one and only appearance to date, and Slim Whitman’s haunting Rose Marie makes a big impact.

The Best:

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Bill Haley & His Comets – Rock Around the Clock: Tempting as it might be to go against the grain here and pick something less predictable, I can’t. Yes it must be nigh-on impossible to hear this and imagine the impact the decade’s best-seller made at the time, and it sounds safe now, but it’s still catchy as hell, and for me, it’s all about that guitar solo.

The Worst:

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Jimmy Young with Bob Sharples & His Music – Unchained Melody: Another one of the most famous songs of all time, but this is nowhere near as good as The Righteous Brothers version. It’s not even as good as Robson & Jerome’s. The blame doesn’t entirely lie with poor Jimmy Young, as the production is all over the place, but he really doesn’t help matters, lurching from barely trying to bellowing within seconds.

1956

Several strong singles this year, mainly Tennessee Ernie Ford’s tough ode to the working man, Sixteen Tons, and Johnnie Ray’s melancholic Christmas number 1, Just Walkin’ in the Rain, featuring an unforgettable whistling refrain. Elvis has arrived, but the UK has to make do with Pat Boone at the top instead with I’ll Be Home. Dean Martin makes his only appearance, and Doris Day returns with signature tune Que Sera, Sera (Whatever Will Be, Will Be).

The Best:

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The Teenagers Featuring Frankie Lymon – Why Do Fools Fall in Love: The first doo-wop song to make it to the top. The Teenagers one and only big hit was so influential on later soul and funk bands, and still sounds good to this day. Such a shame the band, and particularly Lymon, fell apart so soon.

The Worst:

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Anne Shelton with Wally Stott & His Orchestra – Lay Down Your Arms: Shudder. I disliked this song even more the second time around. I’m all for strong women, but Shelton needs to calm down a bit. Her poor lover must be terrified.

1957

The year skiffle hit the top of the charts. Lonnie Donegan’s three number 1 songs left an indelible mark on music, even if it took some time for its impact to become apparent. 1957 is the strongest year for number 1s to date, and rock’n’roll is now dominant. Even the most old-fashioned song, Frankie Vaughan’s The Garden of Eden, sounds good. Legends such as Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly make their first appearances, and the former’s cultural impact becomes apparent, with Tommy Steele and Andy Williams impersonating him, to an occasionally embarrassing degree.

The Best:

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Lonnie Donegan & His Skiffle Group – Cumberland Gap: I used to think skiffle was a rather laughably quaint genre played on cheap, silly instruments. It’s only by listening to what came before Lonnie Donegan that I now understand and appreciate its true effect – to me it’s now almost as important as punk. The hardest part of choosing the best of this year was picking between this and Donegan’s Gamblin’ Man, with it’s fiery ending, but Cumberland Gap came first and sounded like nothing I’d listened to up to that point.

The Worst:

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Guy Mitchell with Jimmy Carroll – Rock-a-Billy: Cheeky chappie Mitchell’s fourth and final chart-topper is mean-spirited and has the laziest chorus of any number 1 so far. A shame, as his previous single at the start of the year, Singing the Blues, proved he could actually be a dab hand at this new pop sound.

1958

Elvis was really on form with his second number 1 – Jailhouse Rock narrowly misses out on my favourite of this year and could have easily won in another year. Burt Bacharach and Hal David made their mark with two concurrent number 1s for Michael Holliday and Perry Como. Connie Francis finally returned a female artist to the top with a versatile selection of solid tunes – her Stupid Cupid introduced Neil Sedaka to the charts. The Everly Brothers made an excellent debut with the year’s highest seller, All I Have to Do is Dream, and Hoots Mon by Lord Rockingham’s XI was the finest novelty number 1 of the decade.

The Best:

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Jerry Lee Lewis – Great Balls of Fire: Direct, simplistic, fun, horny and mad, this just edges past Jailhouse Rock for me and got 1958 off to a great start. As far removed from some of the dreary monotony of 1953 as it’s possible to get in the same decade.

The Worst:

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Vic Damone – On the Street Where You Live: I feel bad for doing this when Vic Damone has so recently passed away, but it really does stick out like a sore thumb from the rest of 1958’s list. It sounds like it belongs in 1954. Sorry, Vic. RIP.

1959

Buddy Holly’s untimely death made It Doesn’t Matter Anymore the first posthumous chart-topper, and was a big influence on Adam Faith’s first number 1, What Do You Want?. Elvis was away in the army, and his singles output quality began to slip with A Fool Such as I/I Need Your Love Tonight. Rock’n’roll went all dreamy and teenage-orientated, with Jerry Keller’s one-hit wonder Here Comes Summer and Bobby Darin’s Dream Lover, before Darin used his success to take an interesting career change. Cliff Richard made his first of many appearances, with Living Doll the year’s best-seller, and Shirley Bassey made her debut at number 1. The decade ended with Emile Ford and the Checkmates’ solid What Do You Want To Make Those Eyes At Me For?.

The Best:

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Bobby Darin – Mack the KnifeA fascinating diversion from his previous number 1, Darin resisted scaring his young fans away with this swinging celebration of a serial killer, but Atlantic Records pushed for it anyway. It’s likely the fans ignored the lyrics and chose to be swept away by his cool vocals and the power and punch of the backing band. Suddenly pop was taking a dark turn, if you listened closely enough. Much covered, but probably never bettered.

The Worst:

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Russ Conway – Side Saddle: This one totally baffled me when I wrote my blog, and while I found it slightly better the second time around, I still can’t quite believe this was such a success, but context is everything, I guess. Nonetheless, it’s still the weakest number 1 of the year.

The Best 50s Number 1 Ever is…

Jerry Lee Lewis – Great Balls of FireDeciding on the best single proved to be much tougher than I first thought. It was very difficult to decide between this and Cumberland Gap, and Mack the Knife wasn’t far behind, either. Both songs shook up the music world, but in different ways. The winner is so ensconced in popular culture, it’s hard to imagine how it must have sounded as new, whereas I came in to Cumberland Gap completely fresh. If this decision was based on which single is most important, I’d have to award it to Cumberland Gap, as the influence of skiffle was so important on the following decade. It proved you didn’t have to have the voice of an opera singer to be at number 1, you didn’t have to have an orchestra backing you, and you didn’t even have to play expensive instruments. You could just make an all-mighty racket.

However, as impressed as I was by it, in the end this decision should also be based on personal enjoyment, as well as influence, mass appeal, inventiveness… and Great Balls of Fire has all of these. And despite me knowing it so well, it still managed to sound new and exciting, even after all this time. Plus, as great as Cumberland Gap sounds compared to most of the competition, in a way I had heard it before with the very similar and better known Rock Island Line. So congratulations, Jerry Lee Lewis. Despite being one of pop music’s first controversial figures, and therefore your brief period in the charts, you’ve managed to top Elvis and many other 50s legends, and Great Balls of Fire is one hell of a tune. You ripped up the rulebook when it came to the piano, and you showed the way pop was heading when it came to showmanship on the stage. And your best work was later used to sell cheese. But that’s record companies for you.

The Worst 50s Number 1 Ever is…

The Stargazers with Syd Dean & His Orchestra – I See the MoonNo contest. Reviewing every number 1 of the 50s was at times trying, and I knew it would be, but nothing prepared me for this. Don’t get me wrong, unlike many ‘serious music’ obsessives, there is a small place in my heart for comedy and novelty songs as genres, if they’re done right. And as I said above, context is everything. But I See the Moon is genuinely painful to listen to. I don’t get the joke, unless the joke is ‘Listen to how awful we sound’, in which case, the joke isn’t funny. In a decade with so number 1s that would be unimaginable now, I See the Moon is beyond comprehension to my poor ears.

The Outro

While I’m keen to get onto the number 1s of the 60s, and I originally saw reviewing the 50s tracks as a necessary evil in order to make it to the next batch, I am sorry to see it go. I’ve learnt a lot, about the social history as well as the music of the time, and it’s been a fascinating look at pop’s baby steps. Next, the decade of The Beatles, the Stones, Swinging London, the return of Labour to government, psychedelia, colour TV, British pop dominating at home and abroad… I can’t wait and I hope you can’t too.

Blogs on every 50s number 1 are available to view via the Archive section.

64. The Crickets – That’ll Be the Day (1957)

By the autumn, 1957 had proved to be an important year in the music charts, but there was more to come. Future My Way songwriter Paul Anka’s Diana was prevented from a 10th week at the top by a new group known as The Crickets, led by the unassuming bespectacled figure Buddy Holly.

Born Charles Hardin Holley in Lubbock, Texas on 7 September 1936, he was born into a musical family and learned to sing at a young age, drawing from diverse influences including gospel and country. The youngest of the Holleys was known by the nickname ‘Buddy’ from childhood.

When his brother Larry returned from service in World War Two he brought a guitar for his brother, and eventually he switched from piano lessons to learn his new instrument. It soon became apparent he was very talented, and Holly appeared on local television in 1952.

Three years later he was opening for rock’n’roll figureheads Elvis Presley and Bill Haley & His Comets. The following year he recorded an album of rockabilly with his new band, Buddy and The Two Tones, for Decca Records. Upon signing with them, his surname was misspelled, and Buddy Holly was born. The album was unsuccessful and Holly wasn’t happy with the sound he achieved with producer Owen Bradley, so he decided to head to New Mexico to record demos with Norman Petty. To avoid legal problems, a new name was needed for the group. They considered calling themselves The Beetles, but settled on The Crickets.

With Buddy Holly on vocals and lead guitar, rhythm guitarist Niki Sullivan, Joe B. Mauldin as bassist and Jerry Allison on drums, their resulting popularity helped define the classic four-piece band line-up.

Much happier with the results under Petty, they decided to release the new version of That’ll Be the Day as a single. Although written by Holly and Allison, Petty insisted on a writing credit too.

It’s perhaps hard now to understand the impact That’ll Be the Day had in 1957. Much like Elvis and skiffle, it proved so influential, but unlike, say, Lonnie Donegan’s Cumberland Gap, it has aged, and is perhaps more comparable to Elvis’s All Shook Up – a little mannered and safe (the stuttering vocals can irritate), but a sign of great promise to come. The final line, ‘That’ll be the day when I die’ is still eerily prescient.

For an all-too-brief time though, the only way was up for Buddy Holly. He began churning out hits, and his name soon got top billing over the rest of The Crickets. His horn-rimmed glasses became hugely popular with teenagers, and future music legends John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Bob Dylan, and Mick Jagger, to name but a few, were listening intently. Holly had one more number 1 to come, as a solo artist, but sadly he wasn’t around to enjoy it.

Written by: Jerry Allison, Buddy Holly & Norman Petty

Producer: Norman Petty

Weeks at number 1: 3 (1-21 November)

Deaths:

Architect William Haywood – 4 November

Meanwhile…

15 November: Flying boat City of Sydney crashed into a disused chalk pit on the Isle of Wight. The Aquila Airways Solent crash was at the time the worst ever air disaster to happen on English soil, killing 45 people.

61. Lonnie Donegan – Gamblin’ Man/Puttin’ On the Style (1957)

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Puttin’ On the Style/Gamblin’ Man, was the first ever double A-side to top the charts. It wasn’t until The Beatles and Day Tripper/We Can Work It Out in 1965 that this became an official phenomenon… in 1957, an intended B-side could become known as the A-side simply because it was requested more in the shops. Double A-sides must have simply had equal requests (which is why the next few years contain many Elvis double-A-sides).

Donegan’s second number 1 release was also the first live recordings to reach number 1 in the UK (recorded at the London Palladium), and the last single to rule the charts issued exclusively on the 78 rpm format. The 7-inch, 45 rpm format, which had first been released in 1949, had become the norm.

Gamblin’ Man, credited to original performer Woody Guthrie and Donegan, starts off much gentler than Donegan’s previous incendiary number 1, Cumberland Gap. A tale of a no-good gambler stealing the heart of a mother’s girl, at first Donegan’s trademark bleat is laid over a casual strum. However, just before you start to wonder when Donegan lost his fire, the song picks up, and like Cumberland Gap, it gets faster and faster, Donegan stumbling over the words as he tries to keep up with another blistering performance. The song ends with Donegan’s drummer smashing down repeatedly on the drums. No number 1 had ever ended like this before.

By comparison, the traditional number Puttin’ On the Style is rather sedate. It’s not without it’s charm, however. It’s a cheeky strum-along, offering a wry look at how youths show off to impress – perhaps Donegan’s attempt to charm the older generation, who might have been scared off by the skiffle movement? It is perhaps a sign of things to come for Donegan, whose next number 1, several years later, appalled skiffle aficionados. And me.

A genre like skiffle was, like punk, never supposed to last long before it burnt out, but it had left its mark. The genre would not make it to number 1 again. Meanwhile, one of music’s biggest superstars had been troubling the upper reaches of the UK top 30 for quite some time, and the top spot was about to finally be his.

Written by:
Gamblin’ Man: Woody Guthrie & Lonnie Donegan/Puttin’ On the Style: Traditional

Producers: Alan A Freeman & Michael Barclay

Weeks at number 1: 2 (28 June-11 July)

Births:

Singer Marc Almond – 9 July
Comedian Paul Merton – 9 July

Meanwhile…

6 July: Scouse teenagers John Lennon and Paul McCartney met for the first time at a garden fête at St. Peter’s Church, Woolton. Lennon’s skiffle group, The Quarrymen, were performing when McCartney arrived for the afternoon show, and they were introduced to each other afterwards by mutual friend Ivan Vaughan. McCartney tried to impress Lennon, performing Eddie Cochran’s Twenty Flight Rock while The Quarrymen set up for their evening set. It must have worked as at the end of the night, Lennon decided he should ask McCartney to join the band.

McCartney had left before their second set, but one of the songs they performed was Puttin’ on the Style.

58. Guy Mitchell with Jimmy Carroll – Rock-a-Billy (1957)

Following such an influential and exciting number 1 as Lonnie Donegan’s Cumberland Gap, I guess the only way was down. It had only been a few months since easy listening and novelty record star Guy Mitchell had hit the top spot for the third time with Singing the Blues, and here he was again for the last time with Woody Harris and Eddie V. Deane’s Rock-a-Billy.

Rockabilly, an offshoot of rock’n’roll, began to creep into the vocabulary of press releases and reviews in 1956. It derived from a blurring of the genres of rockn’roll and bluegrass, or, to put it more insultingly, ‘hillbilly’ music, as it was often called at the time. Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Bill Haley were all producing rockabilly music, and rising rapidly at the time, so why not spoof the genre? Why indeed…

Singing the Blues had, whether intentionally or not, been a successful bridge of genres by Mitchell, covering both his familiar easy listening style and the new rock’n’roll sound. Despite Tommy Steele being considered the more authentic rocker of the two, Steele wound up sounding way too much like Elvis to take seriously, and so Mitchell’s version holds up better. Rock-a-Billy was a bad choice as a follow-up. Well, it wasn’t at the time, it got to number 1, obviously, but the years haven’t been kind to it. It comes across as mean-spirited and the lyrics to the chorus are as unimaginative as it gets. Get a load of this…

‘Rock-a-billy, rock-a-billy, rock-a-billy, rock
Rock-a-billy, rock-a-billy, rock, rock, rock
Rock-a-billy, rock-a-billy, rock-a-billy, rock
Rock-a-billy, rock-a-billy, rock, rock’

There was a little more lyrical dexterity in your average rockabilly song at the time. Later on, Mitchell urges the listener to ‘wriggle like a trout’ and then spitefully exclaims:

‘Ya know you’re gonna act like a crazy fool,
Who cares? It’s cool’.

Unfortunately for Mitchell and others of his ilk, lots of people were interested in acting like crazy fools, and following this fourth chart-topper (which made him equal with Frankie Laine for most UK number 1s at that point), his career waned, bar his 1959 cover of Ray Price’s Heartaches by the Number, which despite missing the top spot became perhaps his best-known tune.

Mitchell retired in the 70s, but recorded material sporadically after that and occasionally joined the nostalgia circuit. He died of complications from cancer surgery on 1 July 1999, aged 72.

Written by: Woody Harris & Eddie V. Deane

Producer: Mitch Miller

Weeks at number 1: 1 (17-23 May)

57. Lonnie Donegan & His Skiffle Group – Cumberland Gap (1957)

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It’s only now that I finally get just why skiffle was so influential. There had been no number 1 like Cumberland Gap before. At 40 seconds in when Lonnie Donegan moves the song up a gear and it enters a breakneck speed, going so fast that he becomes breathless, you see why a genre that was fashionable for such a brief time inspired a generation of great musicians. It has been argued that Cumberland Gap was the first punk number 1, and it’s a very strong argument. This is a million miles away from Here in my Heart.

Lonnie Donegan was born Anthony James Donegan in Bridgeton, Glasgow on 29 April 1931. The son of an Irish mother and a Scottish father, the Donegans moved to East Ham in 1933, but he was evacuated to Cheshire to escape the Blitz.

He bought his first guitar at 14, as World War Two came to an end. He took a keen interest in jazz, folk, country and blues. Trad jazz bandleader Chris Barber had heard he was good on the banjo and asked him for an audition. Donegan had never played a banjo, but bought one and passed the audition anyway.

In 1952 he formed his own band, the Tony Donegan Jazzband, and after opening for blues musician Lonnie Johnson, Donegan took his first name in tribute. By 1953, he was in Ken Colyer’s Jazzmen with Barber.

During the intervals of their shows, Donegan took to providing a ‘skiffle break’. The name derived from a New Orleans term for house parties that were organised to pay the rent. These interludes soon had the crowd more excited than the main sets. Donegan, with backing from a tea-chest bass and washboard from other band members, would play storming renditions of old blues songs by Lead Belly and Woody Guthrie. It’s very likely that Cumberland Gap was among this material. It was only a matter of time before Donegan broke free and went solo.

Easily the oldest song to reach number 1 to date, Cumberland Gap‘s origins are shrouded in mystery. It’s an Appalachian folk tune that likely dates back to the latter half of the 19th century, but I’d put money on it being Woody Guthrie’s recording that Donegan was aware of. Originally concerning a mountain pass at the juncture of Tennessee, Virginia and Kentucky used by migrants in the 18th century, Donegan has fun with the lyric, referring to the county in northwest England instead and claiming the Gap is ‘Fifteen miles from Middlesborough’.

Despite Rock Island Line coming first, and being understandably perhaps the most famous skiffle song ever, I think I prefer Cumberland Gap, maybe because of the fact I’ve been comparing it to number 1s that came before, which can only amplify how good it is, or perhaps due to the wordplay. There’s not a lot of difference between the two, which is why skiffle didn’t last long, but that doesn’t really matter. Both songs create an almighty racket on such basic instruments, don’t outstay their welcome, and show so much other material from the time as being out-of-date and too restrained. And it still sounds fresh, unlike Rock Around the Clock. You can see why Bill Haley soon started to look old-fashioned, and Donegan’s DIY ethic was bound to become more inspiring. Skiffle’s inspiring qualities were instant. By this point, John Lennon had formed The Quarrymen, and during Donegan’s next run at the top, Paul McCartney had joined the group.

Written by: Traditional

Producer: Alan A Freeman

Weeks at number 1: 5 (12 April-16 May)

Births:

Author Nick Hornby – 17 April
Cricketer Graeme Fowler – 20 April
Actor Daniel Day-Lewis – 29 April
Comedian Jo Brand – 3 May
Sex Pistols bassist Sid Vicious – 10 May

Meanwhile…

15 April: John Bodkin Adams shocked the nation by being found not guilty in court. It is still believed that Adams was a forerunner of Dr Harold Shipman, and may have killed over a hundred patients, but that political interference caused him to be set free.

20 April: Manchester United retained the First Division title in the Football League, but lost against Aston Villa in the FA Cup final on 4 May, narrowly missing out on becoming the first team to win the double that century.

24 April: The first broadcast of BBC astronomy series The Sky at Night, with the legendary Patrick Moore at the helm.