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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Written by: John Lennon & Paul McCartney

Producer: Denny Cordell

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

Births:

Singer Steve Brookstein – 10 November

234. Procol Harum – A Whiter Shade of Pale (1967)

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We’re now into the Summer of Love, and in the final, stormy week of June 1967 a landmark event happened, involving, erm, Reg Varney from On the Buses. The comedy actor became the first person to use a cash machine in the world, at Barclays Bank in Enfield. Trippy, man. Two days later Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones was jailed for a year for possession of drugs, and Mick Jagger was sentenced to three months for the same offence.

July began with BBC Two transmitting the first colour TV broadcasts in Britain, during live coverage of the Wimbledon Championships.  It was the final year in which the competition was amateur, and Australian John Newcombe won the men’s tournament, with American Billie Jean King winning the women’s. During Wimbledon, on 7 July, Parliament decriminalised private acts of consensual adult male homosexuality in England and Wales with the Sexual Offences Act.

In the singles chart, after months of rather lightweight pop ruling the charts, Procul Harum went to number 1 with their woozy, hazy classic debut single A Whiter Shade of Pale, on 8 June – the same day the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band topped the album charts for the first time. For the counterculture, it must have felt like the future was theirs for the taking.

Procul Harum formed from the ashes of the Paramounts, a beat group from Southend-on-Sea in Essex. They had reached number 35 in 1964 with their cover of Lieber and Stoller’s Poison Ivy, but split in 1966. Their singer, Gary Brooker, formed his new group in April 1967, and the line-up featured Keith Reid, a poet who would write their lyrics, Matthew Fisher on Hammond organ, guitarist Ray Royer and bassist David Knights. Their manager, Guy Stevens (later to come up with Mott the Hoople’s name and co-produce the Clash’s album London Calling) said they should name themselves after producer Gus Dudgeon’s cat. Dudgeon produced classic work from the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, David Bowie and Elton John. His Burmese pet’s ‘cat fancy’ name was Procul Harun, so they just switched the last letter.

A Whiter Shade of Pale originated at a party Brooker attended. He heard someone say to a woman’ you’ve turned a whiter shade of pale’, and the phrase stuck in his mind. Although the lyrics are full of Bob Dylan-style, mysterious imagery, it’s clear the song is about a man, a woman, and sex. Brooker admitted in the February 2008 issue of Uncut that it was a ‘girl-leaves-boy story’, wrapped up in evocative imagery. He also said that although he may have been smoking at the time, the song was inspired by books, not drugs. Reid must have also had a say in the words though, as he recieved co-credit at the time and didn’t play an instrument.

Matthew Fisher didn’t receive a credit for his integral organ contribution until 2009 in a court ruling. As interesting as the lyrics are, it’s fair to say the song wouldn’t be as famous as it was without his playing, inspired by Bach’s Air on the G string.

Procul Harum convened to record their first single at Olympic Sound Studios in London soon after formation. So soon, they hadn’t yet found a drummer, so session musician Bill Eyden took up the sticks. Produced by Denny Cordell, it was quickly wrapped up in two takes. A few days later they had a drummer, Bobby Harrison, and tried a new version, but opted to release one of their earlier takes in mono only. Cordell was worried about the single’s length and slightly muddy recording, until he sent an acetate to Radio London. John Peel was working for the station at the time, and fell immediately in love with it.

WIth its stately pace, dreamlike feel and surreal lyrics, A Whiter Shade of Pale is a perfect example of a song capturing the zeitgeist. It’s a great song, but it could only have been number 1 for six weeks at that moment in time. The fact it was there at the start of the Summer of Love has elevated its status, possibly making it a touch overrated, but it’s a very impressive debut and a great time capsule of flower power.

Much of British psychedelia harked back to an earlier time, to childhood memories, or even further back to Victorian and Edwardian styles. But the chorus of A Whiter Shade of Pale goes even further back, to Chaucer’s The Miller’s Tale from the 14th century. Critics may complain the words are meaningless, but frankly, they need to get out more. It’s about the feeling they create, rather than a story being told. There’s some excellent acid-laced lines, including the introductory ‘We skipped the light fandango’ and ‘One of sixteen vestal virgins’. When performed live, the song sometimes featured a further two verses, which I’d be interested to hear.

Brooker’s vocal is also great, with his soulful, mournful tones adding to the elegiac tone. In fact, if you ignore the lyrics and just listen to the sound, there are some similarities to Percy Sledge’s beautiful When a Man Loves a Woman.

Procul Harum shot several promotional videos for the single, and if you click above you can see the first, which the band minus Harrison shot in the ruins of Witley Court in Worcestershire. Peter Clifton’s film was banned by Top of the Pops due to the splicing in of footage of the Vietnam war.

Following A Whiter Shade of Pale‘s immense success, Procul Harum were one of the bands of 1967. The single was loved by John Lennon and Paul McCartney, with Lennon in particular becoming obsessed that summer. Their first gig saw them supporting the Jimi Hendrix Experience. The line-up soon changed, with Harrison and Royer leaving to form Freedom. They were replaced by former Paramounts BJ Wilson and Robin Trower respectively. Follow-up single Homburg, released that September, reached number six, despite Peel preferring it to their previous 7-inch. They finished the year with their eponymous debut album in December.

It wasn’t until September 1968 that their second album came out. Shine On Brightly is considered one of the earliest examples of a progressive rock album, with the album closer, In Held ‘Twas in I, lasting over 17 minutes. 1969’s A Salty Dog went further down that route, and Fisher, who produced it, departed soon after. and was replaced by another former Paramount, Chris Copping.

In the 1970s, they fell into a pattern of further line-up changes and ever decreasing album sales, embarking on a full-on symphonic progressive rock sound. Their final top 20 hit was Pandora’s Box in 1975. They split up in 1977, but two months later they were performing at the BRIT Awards, when A Whiter Shade of Pale was named Best British Pop Single 1952-1977, along with Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody.

Procul Harum reformed in 1991, and have remained together ever since, with Brooker the only constant throughout. In 2017 they released their 13th album, Novum. While they were unable to continue with their initial popularity, A Whiter Shade of Pale is still considered one of the best songs of that heady summer, when music branched out and for a while it seemed as though anything was possible.

Written by: Gary Brooker, Keith Reid & Matthew Fisher

Producer: Denny Cordell

Weeks at number 1: 6 (8 June-18 July) 

Births:

Darts player Kevin Painter -2 July
Television writer Paul Cornell – 18 July

Deaths:

Actress Vivien Leigh – 7 July
Cyclist Tom Simpson – 13 July 

219. Georgie Fame and the Blue Flames – Get Away (1966)

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After coming out on top in their group, England’s World Cup winning ways continued in the knockout stages. On 23 July they defeated Argentina at Wembley Stadium thanks to a goal in the last 15 minutes from Geoff Hurst. Three days later, two goals from Bobby Charlton against Portugal, also at Wembley, saw England secure their place in the final. Their opponents were to be West Germany, who had defeated the Soviet Union 2-1 the previous day.

At number 1 that week were jazz and R’n’B group Georgie Fame and the Blue Flames. Since their previous number 1, Yeh Yeh in January 1965, the group had released three singles. In the Meantime, Like We Used to Be and Something didn’t make it into the top 20. Fame, real name Clive Powell, wrote Get Away to be used in a television advertisement for National petrol. Four years since Cliff Richard and the Shadows’ Summer Holiday, this was a more swinging, hip way of celebrating British summertime, and with the World Cup ongoing, all eyes were on England. Its release proved timely.

Set to an upbeat acoustic guitar, Fame’s gravelly but chipper vocal and chiming brass, Get Away is one of the lesser-known number 1s of the 60s, and is certainly not a classic like the recent Paperback Writer or Sunny Afternoon. That’s not to say it’s a bad track, and I’d imagine it worked very well as an advert jingle., but it rather outstays its welcome as a single. The lyric ‘Don’t mind the weather girl’ proved prescient, as although we like to imagine the summer of 66 was always glorious, in reality July was wet and dull most of the time.

Georgie Fame and the Blue Flames released two more singles that year, making the top 20 with Sunny and Sitting in the Park. They released third album Sweet Things (featuring new drummer Mitch Mitchell, only a year away from joining the Jimi Hendrix Experience) and shortly after, Fame made the decision to sign with CBS and become a solo artist. He would have one more number 1.

In the 70s, Get Away (which was also known as Getaway due to misprints on records) found further life as the theme tune to a long-running travel show in Australia called, you guessed it, Getaway.

Written by: Clive Powell

Producer: Denny Cordell

Weeks at number 1: 1 (21-27 July)

Births:

Politician Diana Johnson – 25 July 

185. The Moody Blues – Go Now (1965)

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On a typically pale, grey 30 January, the nation bid a final farewell to Sir Winston Churchill, the man who had saved the country from tyranny at the hands of the Nazis. For three days and three nights, over 300,000 mourners had filed past his casket. A million people gathered along the procession route as the gun carriage rode past 10 Downing Street and Trafalgar Square, where 20 years previously the mood had been altogether different as the news of victory in World War Two was celebrated. The service took place in St Paul’s Cathedral, attended by the Royal family and world leaders, before he was buried privately at Bladon, near his family’s ancestral home in Oxfordshire.

And so it was rather appropriate that the number 1 single at the time was a song about being unable to cope with the departure of a loved one. Go Now was very different to the type of songs that the Moody Blues would later be famous for, but then this was a different line-up.

The group first formed in Birmingham in 1964. Multi-instrumentalist Ray Thomas, bass player John Lodge and keyboardist Mike Pinder had been members of El Riot & the Rebels. Thomas and Pinder then joined the Krew Cats, but they disbanded after a spell in Hamburg. They recruited Denny Laine as their guitarist and singer, Graeme Edge as their drummer and Clint Warick as bassist after Lord declined due to still being at college. They hoped for a sponsorship deal from the M&B Brewery and named themselves the M Bs and the M B Five, but it never came off, so they became the Moody Blues as a subtle reference to Duke Ellington’s Mood Indigo. That spring they signed with Decca. Getting a beat group a record deal had become much easier once Beatlemania began, but their debut single Steal Your Heart Away failed to chart.

They then decided to record Go Now. This soul ballad had been written by Larry Banks and Milton Bennett for Banks’ wife, Bessie, who had recorded a demo in 1962. Hit-making producers and Elvis Presley collaborators Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller produced a new version with her the following year. Upon hearing Bessie Banks’ version, Laine was entranced and insisted the Moody Blues make it their next single. It was produced by Denny Cordell, who later produced number 1s for Procul Harum and Joe Cocker.

The opening of Go Now is one of my favourite introductions to any song. So much so, I can find myself singing it without warning. It seems to have taken up a special place within my brain over the years. Laine’s vocal throughout is perfect, and although the Moody Blues version is a straightforward copy of the original, his voice has an edge to it that tops Banks’ performance. Critics of the song point out that after the beginning the lyrics don’t really go anywhere, but I think that’s kind of the point. The singer is so broken up, they can’t get it together enough to formulate their thoughts. I’ll always have a soft spot for Go Now.

Unusually, the band filmed a promotional video, produced and directed by co-manager Alex Wharton. The Beatles were one of the only other bands attempting such an idea at the time. Watching Go Now, you have to wonder if this is where Queen got the idea for Bohemian Rhapsody (see above).

And that was just about it for the Moody Blues. Except it wasn’t. Wharton left the stable shortly after their debut album The Magnificient Moodies was released, and they couldn’t capitalise on their early success. In June 1966 Warwick quit to be replaced by Rod Clark. Things got worse when Laine left that October during recording for their second album, with Clark choosing to leave the sinking ship a few days later.

Down, but not out, the remaining three recruited Justin Hayward to replace Laine, and Lodge returned to the fold now his college days were done. Come 1967, the music world was changing once more, and psychedelia was growing in popularity. Wisely, the Moody Blues chose to abandon the R’n’B sound and move towards a more experimental sound. Their contract with Decca was about to expire but they owed the label a lot of money and their second album never surfaced. Luckily for them they found a sympathetic figure in Hugh Mendl, who had just established Deram as a more leftfield offshoot of Decca. He helped throw the Moody Blues a lifeline: make a rock version of Antonín Dvořák’s New World Symphony to promote the label’s Deramic Stereo Sound audio format, and their debt would be written off. The band agreed, but the project fell through, so they set to work on the album that would become Days of Future Passed. Blending classical music with psychedelia, the Moody Blues became purveyors of symphonic rock, and eventually progressive rock giants. Having listened to the album for the first time recently, I have to admit to being disappointed. It takes itself a bit too seriously, but you’d be a fool to not love Nights in White Satin. I prefer their follow-up album, the more out-there In Search of the Lost Chord (1968), particularly Ride My See-Saw, Legend of a Mind and Om.

The Moody Blues split in 1974, but were back together only three years later, and have continued ever since despite further line-up changes. Hawyard, Lodge and Edge have remained, however. Despite the fact they have never been the most fashionable of groups, they were and are hugely successful, and earlier this year they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

And what became of Denny Laine? Oh, not much. He formed the Electric String Band with ex-members of the Move and the Pretty Things, in a set-up similar to that of the Electric Light Orchestra, who came later. He also tried his hand as a solo artist before forming Balls in February 1969 (great name) and also played in Ginger Baker’s Air Force. In 1971, he became a multi-instrumentalist in Paul and Linda McCartney’s new group, Wings. Considering how similar his name is to Penny Lane, it was clearly meant to be. He contributed lead and rhythm guitars, lead and backing vocals, bass and woodwinds. So, no shrinking violet, despite working with an ex-Beatle. Wings were one of the biggest bands of the 1970s, and he co-wrote, among others, Mull of Kintyre, one of the biggest-selling singles of all time and the 1977 Christmas number 1. He decided to leave Wings after McCartney became reluctant to tour in the wake of John Lennon’s death. He did occasionaly continue to collaborate with McCartney, though. He performs with the Denny Laine Band to this day.

Written by: Larry Banks & Milton Bennett

Producer: Denny Cordell

Weeks at number 1: 1 (28 January-3 February)

Births:

Wrestler Norman Smiley – 28 February

Deaths:

Cricketer Tich Freeman – 28 January