253. Des O’Connor – I Pretend (1968)

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And the 1968 award for ‘Really? He got to number 1?’ Shock and Awe Award goes to… Des O’Connor! Yes, the veteran light entertainment star, now 87, spent an incredible 36 weeks in the charts, and one of those weeks at number 1, with the ballad I Pretend.

Desmond Bernard O’Connor was born 12 January 1932 in Stepney, East London, to a Jewish mother and Irish father. During World War Two he was evacuated to Northampton. He was briefly a footballer with Northampton Town, and also worked as a shoe salesman after completing National Service with the Royal Air Force.

In the 1950s he made his first move into showbusiness working as a Butlins redcoat, and began performing at theatres up and down the country, with a bit of singing, bit of comedy, and basically just being all-round nice-guy Des. He even toured with Buddy Holly in 1958. Allegedly, Holly wasn’t impressed with his variety act though.

Des got his big break in 1963 with ATV’s The Des O’Connor Show, which ran for ten years. Established as one of TV’s biggest stars, he released his debut single in 1967. Flower power may have been the cool youth movement of the time, but Des was in good company that year, with smooth easy listening singer Engelbert Humperdinck ending up the year’s biggest sensation. Des’s cover of the 1948 hit Careless Hands rocketed to number six, marking the start of a pop career that would be mocked affectionately throughout the 70s by his friends and colleagues Morecambe and Wise.

O’Connor may have been considered very square by the hippies, but the follow-up I Pretend was one of 1968’s biggest sellers. Its writers, Barry Mason and the late Les Reed, had been responsible for Humperdinck’s second number 1, The Last Waltz, and Des’s song treads familiar ground.

And what turgid, tepid ground it is. I Pretend is a weaker song than The Last Waltz, and is the weakest number 1 of 1968 so far – that’s right, it’s even worse than Cinderella Rockefeller, which at least that had some semblance of a tune, horrid though it was. Des has lost his loved one, and he can’t think why. She might have ran off with another man, but he doesn’t know for sure… you’ve lost interest already, haven’t you? The problem is, Des isn’t bothered either. I know his act is to play up the easygoing, smiling everyman schtick, but a bit of conviction might have helped. A more appropriate title might have been I Pretend to Give a Shit. Problem is, he’s not even trying to pretend.

It’s worth mentioning that production came from Norman Newell. No stranger to number 1 singles, he was the man behind Russ Conway’s Side Saddle and Roulette, Shirley Bassey’s Reach for the Stars/Climb Ev’ry Mountain, and most famously, Ken Dodd’s Tears. None of these singles are any good, however.

But nevermind. I like Des, and so does everyone else. He’s impossible to get angry about, really, bless him. His chart hits continued until 1970, with intriguing titles including 1-2-3 O’Leary and Dick-A-Dum-Dum. When The Des O’Connor Show ended he presented Des O’Connor Entertains from 1974 to 1976, with the focus purely on him as he took his live show to ITV. In 1977 he began hosting Des O’Connor Tonight, which began on BBC Two but moved to ITV, and lasted until 2002 – an incredible run in which he chatted to some of the biggest stars in entertainment.

Des returned to the charts again in 1986 when he and expert whistler Roger Whittaker went to number ten with their version of The Skye Boat Song. Des would be the butt of many jokes once more, except it was alternative comedians now doing the pisstaking, with a little more menace than Morecambe and Wise, but Des carried on regardless. The ribbing even went mainstream once more, as family comedian Russ Abbott starred in a memorable series of adverts for Castella cigars in which Des’s singing was ridiculed. Here’s the most famous one. I’m sure Des showed he could still take a joke by appearing in one, but the memory is very hazy.

Between 1992 and 1998, Des presented ITV game show Take Your Pick, and following the end of Des O’Connor Tonight he moved into weekday daytime TV, co-presenting Today with Des and Mel alongside Melanie Sykes. Popular with old folk and lazy students, they did have a good rapport, but they were axed in 2006. In 2007 O’Connor took over as presenter on long-running Channel 4 quiz Countdown from Des Lynam, but left only a year later.

By then in his 70s, Des’s TV work understandably tailed off, with the odd guest appearances here and there, including an enjoyable appearance on Harry Hill’s Alien Fun Capsule in 2017. He sparked concerns that year when he was pictured looking frail while fighting a stomach bug, but he’s back to looking surprisingly well for such an old chap, and is currently touring the country with Jimmy Tarbuck. Long may he continue, as long as he stays away from the recording studio.

Written by: Barry Mason & Les Reed

Producer: Norman Newell

Weeks at number 1: 1 (24-30 July)

Births:

Actress Olivia Williams – 26 July 

237. Engelbert Humperdinck – The Last Waltz (1967)

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September 1967, and the Summer of Love was over. This was certainly reflected by the number 1 single for most of the month. But first, a look at the news at the time…

On 6 September, the UK’s first supertanker Myrina was launched in Belfast. It was the largest ever ship built in the country at that point. Three days later, former Prime Minister Clement Attlee MP was hospitalised with a ‘minor condition’. It turned out to be more serious than that. Attlee died of pneumonia on 8 October, aged 84. Presiding over the most radical government of the 20th century, his legacy is among other things, the welfare state and the NHS. A true legend. 20 September saw the launch of RMS Queen Elizabeth II, better known as the QE2.

In the worlds of television and radio, surreal cult TV series The Prisoner starring Patrick McGoohan was broadcast on ITV for the first time on 29 September. The following day, in the wake of the banning of pirate radio stations, the BBC overhauled its radio programming. The Light Programme was split between Radio 1 and Radio 2, the Third Programme became Radio 3, and the Home Service was now Radio 4. Radio 1 was modelled on the pirate station Radio London, and wisely deciding it needed to be hip, picked Flowers in the Rain by the Move as the first ever track to play. Had it used the number 1 at the time, it might not have been seen as rather square.

Engelbert Humperdinck was back, pop pickers. The mighty Release Me had been the year’s biggest seller and held even the Beatles at bay, but his follow-up There Goes My Everything couldn’t topple Procul Harum’s A Whiter Shade of Pale. And so Humperdinck, songwriters Barry Mason and Les Reed, and all the straights who wanted revenge on these drug-taking hippies teamed up to end this run of psychedelic anthems at number 1. Or something like that.

And what dastardly results they conjured up. The Last Waltz was number 1 for five long weeks, and suddenly we’re back in the world of light entertainment ballads that could have been written years previous.

But the problem with The Last Waltz is the singer, not the song. It’s got a nice, Bacharach & David-style piano led tune to begin with. It’s Humperdinck that ruins it, and its made me realise I perhaps went a little easy on him when I reviewed Release Me. Humperdinck is right to bristle at the idea of being called a crooner – he certainly has a hell of a set of lungs on him – but what use are they if you’re going to ignore the emotion of the material and sing every song the same way?

The Last Waltz is a man recalling the day he met an ex-lover, who he danced with at the end of the night. Then it jumps (such a big jump it doesn’t create much of a dramatic effect) to their final waltz together. He sounds exactly the same throughout. And then, to top it all off, he starts a jolly little ‘la la la la la…’ over the melody. Doesn’t exactly create the impression Humperdinck gives a toss about her, to my ears. I’m not saying he needs to be wailing in sheer agony, but it takes more than a great voice to impress me.

Clearly though, in a world that was rapidly changing,  the majority of record buyers were ready for the safety net of some easy listening once more. Humperdinck was the pop star of 1967, ratcheting up 11 weeks as top of the pops. 1968 was another great year, with A Man Without Love and Les Bicyclettes de Belsize in the top ten, as did Winter World of Love in 1969.

As the 1970s progressed the singles slowly began to chart lower and lower. However his albums still did well, and in 1972 he presented the BBC One variety show Engelbert with The Young Generation, featuring the Goodies as regular guests. With the advent of disco, Humperdinck proved very popular in the US by adopting the ‘Philadelphia Sound’ and would perform his stage show on Broadway.

The 80s saw Humperdinck spend most of his time in the US, either performing in Las Vegas or making cameos on cheesy TV shows such as The Love Boat and Fantasy Island. Album releases continued and he became involved with lots of charities including the Leukemia Research Fund, the American Red Cross and various AIDS relief charities. So say what you like about his music, but at least he has a heart.

He also proved he had a sense of humour in the 90s. During the lounge revival he sang Lesbian Seagull on the excellent Beavis & Butt-head Do America in 1996. His career has continued into the 21st century, with a greatest hits compilation, Engelbert at His Very Best reaching the top five in 2000. He was nominated for a Grammy in 2003 for his gospel album Always Hear the Harmony: The Gospel Sessions. To mark 40 years since Release Me and The Last Waltz he released an album of songs by British composers called The Winding Road in 2007. He missed out on appearing on the Gorillaz album Plastic Beach, released in 2010 when his management declined on his behalf without him ever hearing what Damon Albarn had in mind. He was said to be gutted by this and would like to work with them one day. Would make for an interesting listen.

In 2012 Humperdinck found himself representing the United Kingdom in the Eurovision Song Contest in Baku, Azerbaijan. Unfortunately the appeal of a big-name star held no sway and Love Will Set You Free was voted second to last. But Humperdinck carried on regardless and released a double CD of big-name duets in 2014. Engelbert Calling featured Cliff Richard, Smokey Robinson, Elton John and Il Divo. His 50th anniversary of becoming a star was marked with another best of, and a new album. 2017’s The Man I Want to Be featured covers of tracks by contemporary stars Ed Sheeran and Bruno Mars.

Now aged 82, Gerry Dorsey, aka Engelbert Humperdinck, shows no signs of slowing down. Back in the mid-90s, a friend and I wrote a sitcom. Called Life’s a Drag, it was our attempt at an ever weirder version of The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin. The main character, played by Rodney Bewes, was to be a tired, daydreaming middle-aged man working for a cigarette company (get it?). His boss was to be played by Tom Baker, and Bill Oddie would be a wise old tramp living in his back garden. His son was to be called Engelbert, as his wife would have been a Humperdinck obsessive. One day Bewes was starring in a play in our town, so once it was over we marched into the theatre to present Bewes with our script. He stared at us, totally baffled, and needless to say, we never heard back.

Written by: Barry Mason & Les Reed

Producer: Peter Sullivan

Weeks at number 1: 5 (6 September-10 October)

Births:

Actor Toby Jones – 7 September
Actress Tara FitzGerald – 18 September
Lexicographer Susie Dent – 21 September
Businesswoman Denise Coates – 26 September
Actor Guy Pearce – 5 October

Deaths:

Physicist John Cockroft – 18 September 
Conductor Malcolm Sargent – 3 October
Politician Norman Angell – 7 October
Prime Minister Clement Attlee – 8 October
Chemist Cyril Norman Hinshelwood – 9 October

235. The Beatles – All You Need Is Love (1967)

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Halfway into the Summer of Love, and the Beatles were back on top of the world. Since Eleanor Rigby/Yellow Submarine was number 1, the Fab Four had given up touring in August 1966 and worked on separate projects, with John Lennon starring in Richard Lester’s comedy How I Won the War (1967) and Paul McCartney scoring the 1966 comedy drama The Family Way.

Reconvening in November, they began work on Lennon’s dark, psychedelic masterpiece Strawberry Fields Forever, then McCartney’s joyous Penny Lane. It’s believed that McCartney became the last band member to try LSD that December. By this point, Lennon was a heavy user, which resulted in him becoming more emotionally withdrawn and lacking his usual bullishness. McCartney would become unofficial band leader over the next year.

These tracks were originally intended for their next album, which could have been based around the Beatles’ childhood, but after pressure from EMI, they were released as a double A-side single in February 1967. Famously, despite perhaps being their finest ever 7-inch release, not even the biggest band in the world were able to stop Engelbert Humperdinck’s Release Me, and for the first time since 1963, they didn’t get to number 1.

It wasn’t a big deal for the Beatles, who knew they were taking giant steps away from their cuddly moptop image of old. They were now working on their next album. The idea of a concept album based around a concert by Sgt. Pepper’s band came from McCartney. It would give them the freedom to create a wildly different type of album, and indulge themselves like never before. They knew they would not have to perform live anymore, so were able to experiment in ways previously thought impossible. Their magnum opus, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was finished in April, and released on 1 June.

The Beatles had changed forever, but the world still needed them, and so it changed with them too. Like Procul Harum, they captured the zeitgeist, and next they released a single that would be the unofficial anthem of the Summer of Love.

In May the band agreed to represent Great Britain on the live TV special Our World. Scheduled to be broadcast around the world on 25 June, the show would feature artists representing each country across the globe. The Beatles were working on giving tracks to the forthcoming animated movie Yellow Submarine, and at first they weren’t sure what track to choose for the show. The only instructions they were given was that it needed to contain a message that could be understood anywhere in the world. When manager Brian Epstein told them, they originally bristled at the idea. One track they considered was McCartney’s Your Mother Should Know.

Opinion is divided over whether All You Need Is Love was then written specifically for Our World, or whether it was a track Lennon had in mind for them anyway. Perhaps lyrically inspired by The Word from 1965’s Rubber Soul, and George Harrison’s Within You Without You from their new album, Lennon liked the concept of making an advertisement for love, and turning the song into an advert for the concept. Turning it into a catchy slogan fitted with the idea of Our World perfectly.

The producers of the show wanted the track to be performed entirely live, but producer George Martin insisted the group performed to a backing track. Work began on 14 June at Olympic Sound Studios, and with the Beatles now fully engrossed in the idea of embracing random elements into their methods, they decided to play instruments they weren’t used to (with the exception of Ringo Starr). Lennon was on harpsichord, McCartney on double bass and Harrison played the violin. With unusual sloppiness, they bounced this performance on to one of four available tracks. Five days later they overdubbed piano from Martin, plus banjo, guitar and vocal parts including Lennon on the chorus and the ‘Love, love love’ harmonies.

Two days before the show, they rehearsed with an orchestra, which they added to the backing track. It was only the day before the performance that they announced it would be their next single. Around this time their was a minor furore over McCartney revealing on television that he had taken LSD. Despite being the last to do so, the other three had never revealed their drug use to the media.

On the day of the broadcast, Martin  and engineer Geoff Emerick drank scotch whiskey to calm their nerves. After all, Our World was to be shown to millions upon millions of viewers. The Beatles sat nonchalantly on high stools, surrounded by a 13-piece orchestra and celebrity friends sat beneath them (how symbolic!), including members of the Rolling Stones, the Who, Small Faces and Cream, plus Marianne Faithfull, Pattie Boyd and Jane Asher. It’s a shame the broadcast was in black and white, as the studio was awash with colour. With much of the track already in the bag, Starr’s drums, McCartney’s bass and Harrison’s guitar solo were performed live, as well as the lead vocal from Lennon and backing vocals from the group and their assorted friends.

The Beatles’ music normally transcends time and place, and you rarely find yourself saying ‘I guess you had to be there’, but I feel that does apply to All You Need Is Love. Back in 1995 when I was 16 and obsessed with them, I wanted to be a hippy and this single was up there with my favourites. Now I’ve grown up and become more tired and cynical, I find it somewhat… I’m not sure if ‘hollow’ is the right word or not… it seems harsh. But for me in 2019, its their least creatively impressive single for several years.

Then again, it was intended as a celebration of the spirit of the times, and in that sense it certainly achieved what it set out to do. The orchestral elements help add flavour to proceedings, and I like the trumpet elements that interject after every line of the chorus, creating a lazy, drunken feel. The brief snatch of the French national anthem, La Marseeillaise at the start makes for a great introduction. However it’s unusual for a Beatles song to quote so many old songs. Was this to go along with the party atmosphere or a sign they were creatively lacking. I don’t know, but it does make for a rousing finale, mixing in In the Mood, Greensleeves, and even Beatles classics Yesterday and most memorably of all, She Loves You. Using the latter two works in a similar way to the usage of waxwork dummies of the Beatles in their earlier days on the cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Hearts Club Band. It’s as if they’re saying goodbye to their younger, fresh-faced selves. To get the most out of the song’s finale, listen to the mono mix – the fade-out is slightly longer.

Brian Epstein, who was only two months away from his early death, called All You Need Is Love the finest moment of the Beatles. It’s far from it, but its nice that he felt that way towards the group that had transformed his life. Whatever your opinion on the song, it’s a great sentiment, it was right for the time, and Lennon’s slogan stuck, and showed the way forward for his eventual solo career.

The single would find its way on to the Magical Mystery Tour US album – which, since the CD releases in 1987, is a UK album too. It also made a memorable appearance in Yellow Submarine (1968) and features on the movie’s soundtrack too.

In the news that summer: the British steel industry was nationalised on 28 July. On 3 August, the inquiry into the Aberfan disaster (see Distant Drums) blamed the National Coal Board for the deaths of 164 people in South Wales in October 1966. And on 5 August, psychedelic pop group Pink Floyd released their classic debut album, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn.

Written by: John Lennon & Paul McCartney

Producer: George Martin

Weeks at number 1: 3 (19 July-18 August) 

Births:

Broadcaster Rageh Omaar – 19 July
Journalist Lauren Booth – 22 July 
Tennis player Monique Javier – 22 July
Cricketer Darren Bicknell – 24 July
Actor Jason Statham – 26 July

Deaths:

Actor Basil Rathbone – 21 July 

230. Engelbert Humperdinck – Release Me (1967)

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Spring, 1967 saw one man sitting atop the charts. For seven weeks Engelbert Humperdinck was number 1 with Release Me. It was the year’s biggest seller, and famously, was the first song to prevent the Beatles from reaching number 1 since 1963. But before I go into that, what else was happening in the UK over those six weeks?

On 4 March the first North Sea gas was pumped ashore at Easington, East Riding. That same day, Queens Park Rangers became the first Third Division side to win the League Cup when they beat West Bromwich Albion 3-2 at Wembley Stadium. Supertanker SS Torrey Canyon ran aground between Land’s End and the Scilly Isles, creating the biggest oil spill in the world at the time, and it remains the biggest in UK history. At the Astoria Theatre in Finsbury Park, London on 31 March, guitar legend Jimi Hendrix set fire to his instrument for the first time. He was taken to hospital afterwards for burns to his hands. As he had superhuman axeman powers, it didn’t put him off doing it time and time again.

Norwell Roberts made history on 3 April, becoming the first black officer for the Metropolitan Police Service. Five days later the Grand National was won by 100-1 outsider Foinavon, and Sandie Shaw became the first singer to have an English-language entry win the Eurovision Song Contest, with Puppet on a String. It would soon become her third and final number 1. And as Humperdinck’s reign finally began to end, Tom Stoppard’s play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead received it’s premier at the Old Vic in London.

So, Release Me. This shouldn’t have come as a surprise to me after blogging so many hits of the time, but it wasn’t Humperdinck’s song originally. It was first written in 1949 by country music singer-songwriters Eddie Harris and Robert Yount, with James Pebworth also receiving a confusing third of the royalties. Confusing, because over the years he used several different pseudonyms that often cropped up on various versions, sometimes even two at once. Harris recorded the first version, but it was Ray Price who made it a hit for the first time in 1954. Then along came Humperdinck. Who was this bizarrely named singer?

It won’t come as a surprise to find out it’s not his real name. He was born Arnold George Dorsey in May 1936. One of ten children, he spent his first decade living in Madras, British India (now Chennai), before the Dorseys moved to the less exotic Leicester. Interested in music from a young age, he learnt the saxophone and would play it in nightclubs, and apparently didn’t attempt to sing live until he was 17, when his friends persuaded him to enter a pub contest. His impression of Jerry Lee Lewis earned him the name Gerry Dorsey, which he used for nearly a decade.

Dorsey’s career was interrupted by National Service, and he made his first recordings after being discharged with Decca Records in 1958. He failed to make his mark.

That all changed in 1965 when he teamed up with his old roommate Gordon Mills. Mills was Tom Jones’s manager, and was the one who came up with his name change. He reckoned he could do the same for Dorsey, and suggested ‘Engelbert Humperdinck’. Humperdinck was a German composer in the 19th century, and among his works was Hansel and Gretel. Quite why Mills thought this would be a reasonable name is unknown to me. At least ‘Tom Jones’ had been in the public eye at the time, having been the name of a big film.

Humperdinck signed a new contract with Decca under his new stage name, and things picked up when he started to do well in Europe, entering the Knokke song contest and having a hit in Belgium with Dommage, Dommage. Around this time he visited German songwriter Bert Kaempfert, and became keen on Strangers in the Night. He recorded it and wanted it released as a single, but Frank Sinatra got there first.

Fortune finally smiled on Humperdinck when Dickie Valentine fell ill and had to miss an appearance on Sunday Night at the London Palladium. He sang Release Me, and had rave reviews. Soon, his recording was at the top of the charts, and it held firm.

I thought that overfamiliarity with Release Me would make listening to it a waste of time, but there were a couple of surprises. For one, it was a lot slower than I remembered, but I think my brain had somehow replaced it with the version used on BBC Two Nineties comedy The Fast Show – a version which at least had some flair. Humperdinck’s version isn’t half dreary to begin with. Charles Blackwell’s production makes it all sound a little too slick, and doesn’t really give off the impression that Humperdinck is dying to move on from his partner (hard to believe it was produced by the man behind Come Outside). But I have to admit I was impressed with his singing in the latter half. He has a great voice, you have to give him that, and he does sound pretty anguished during that final run through the chorus. Apparently Humperdinck didn’t like being referred to as a crooner, because he felt his range was better than that, and I wouldn’t argue with him.

I can’t dislike Release Me as much as many Beatles fans do. Obviously it didn’t deserve to keep Penny Lane/Strawberry Fields Forever from number 1, but it’s by far the worst number 1 I’ve heard, and there’s far worse to come. I like the lyrics too. Although the track is nearly 20 years old by this point, I can’t imagine it was easy to come by songs that hinted at separation and divorce back then. You’re only hearing one side of the argument, true, but you can’t help feeling some degree of empathy.

But, like Tears and Distant Drums in the two years previous, just why did this become so huge? And why does the list of 1967 number 1s feature lots of lengthy stints at the top, and from safer material than the previous few years? I think, perhaps, that things got a little too weird for many record buyers, and particularly the older ones. Whereas many of the number 1s of 1965 and 1966 still had commercial appeal, even if they were breaking new ground too. And so there was a return to the safe, slick world of easy listening and light-entertainment-style pop. Humperdinck was also a heart-throb, unlike Ken Dodd and Jim Reeves, so that will have helped him somewhat as well.

It wasn’t just Release Me that had a lasting impact – even the B-side left its mark. Ten Guitars was so popular in New Zealand, it’s considered the unofficial national anthem.

And so, as some of the greatest rock bands of all time prepared to release albums that would go down in history as 20th-century classics, an amusingly-named warbler who had struggled for years was the biggest singer in the UK with an easy listening cover of an old country song. And he had another chart-topper before the year was out, too.

Written by: Eddie Miller, James Pebworth & Robert Yount

Producer: Charles Blackwell

Weeks at number 1: 6 (2 March-12 April) *BEST-SELLING SINGLE OF THE YEAR*

Births:

Director Sam Taylor-Johnson – 4 March
Scottish actor John Barrowman – 11 March
Race walker Lisa Langford – 15 March
Lush singer Miki Berenyi – 18 March
Director Kwame Kwei-Armah – 24 March
Presenter Helen Chamberlain – 2 April

Deaths:

Author John Haden Bradley – 6 March