US singer-songwriter Don McLean is best known for American Pie, his folk-rock epic that referenced the plane crash that killed some of the brightest stars of the 50s. However, his first UK number 1 was its follow-up, the ode to Dutch artist Vincent Van Gogh, Vincent.
Donald McLean III was born 2 October 1945 in New Rochelle, New York, with roots on his father’s side to Scotland. His mother was Italian. The young McLean suffered severe asthma and was forced to miss long periods of school, so he took solace in folk music, particularly The Weavers.
When McLean was 15, his father died and he immersed himself in music once more, buying his first guitar and starting to make contacts in the industry, including befriending Fred Hellerman from The Weavers. He graduated from preparatory school in 1963 and dropped out of Villanova University after four months and became a part-time student so he could devote himself to folk music. He became a regular at venues in New York and Los Angeles.
1968 was a pivotal year for McLean, where he finally chose music over education. He turned down a scholarship in Colombia and later on received a grant from the New York State Council on the Arts to expand his live performances. He took advice from folk legend Pete Seeger and supported him in 1969.
While the Berkeley student riots went on around him in California, McLean recorded his debut album Tapestry. The album was rejected 72 times, until the small label Mediarts released it in 1970. McLean may well have remained unknown, had the company not been bought out by United Artists Records. With a much bigger budget behind him, he recorded his follow-up American Pie.
As the world knows, the title track, released in late 1971 after the album, was the biggest song of McLean’s career. This sprawling epic, inspired by the deaths of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper in 1959, popularised the term ‘the day the music died’ after the plane crash that killed them. It also charted his youth and developments in youth culture – at least, that’s the theory, as McLean has never explained. American Pie reached number one on the Billboard Hot 100, but stalled at number two in the UK. It took Madonna to make it a number 1, in 2000.
Track three on the LP, Vincent, was inspired by McLean looking through a book about Van Gogh one morning. One of the artworks he came across was The Starry Night. This oil on canvas, pained in June 1889, depicted Van Gogh’s view from the east-facing window of his asylum room at Saint-Rémy-de-Provence psychiatric hospital. Van Gogh was prone to psychotic episodes and delusions, and had famously cut off part of his left ear during an argument with Paul Gaugin. Van Gogh had entered this hospital a month prior to his painting, and a year later he was dead from a self-inflicted shot to the chest.
The Starry Night is a beautiful painting, and the opening to Vincent is too.
‘Starry starry night Paint your palette blue and grey Look out on a summer’s day With eyes that know the darkness in my soul’
Unfortunately, it’s downhill from there. I must admit Vincent has never interested me beyond that intro and upon further research, I’m put off even less. The lyrics are rather patronising – McLean gives the impression that he understands the fate of Van Gogh because he too is some kind of tortured genius, and that we mere normal people will never understand it. Maybe so, but this isn’t a work of genius, it’s average, and I have to confess I’ve always found American Pie somewhat overrated too. So yes, McLean, to paraphrase, I would not listen, I’m not listening still, and perhaps I never will. I can live with that.
It would be eight years before McLean’s next number 1, a cover of Roy Orbison’s Crying.
Written by: Don McLean
Producer: Ed Freeman
Weeks at number 1: 2 (17-30 June)
18 June: British European Airways Flight 548 crashed near Staines in Surrey. 116 of the 118 people on board were dead by the time ambulances arrived, and the two survivors died before reaching hospital. It was the worst UK disaster for 16 years, until the Lockerbie bombing. An inquiry later revealed the pilot had a heart condition and an argument with crew may have caused the plane to have a deep stall.
23 June: Chancellor of the Exchequer Anthony Barber announced a decision to float the pound as a temporary measure. It has floated ever since.
Sir Roderick David Stewart, aka ‘Rod the Mod’, was one of the biggest-selling artists of the 70s and 80s, with over 120 million records sold worldwide, and six number 1 singles. And yet his first chart-topper, Maggie May, was tucked away as a B-side. Were it not for its appeal shining through, Stewart may not have become as big a superstar as he did.
Stewart was born at home in Highgate, London on 10 January 1945. He was the youngest of five children, the other four having been born in Leith, Edinburgh, Scotland, where his father Robert, a builder, came from. After he retired, Robert bought a newsagent’s shop, which the Stewart family lived above. His youngest’s main hobby, which he still loves, was railway modelling.
Stewart’s other big obsession was football, and he became captain of his school’s team. His first musical hero was Al Jolson, but he soon got into rock’n’roll, and he saw Bill Haley & His Comets in concert. In 1960 he joined a skiffle group called The Kool Kats, and would play Lonnie Donegan covers.
Stewart left school at 15 and had various jobs working in the family shop, as a silk screen printer and at a cemetery, but he longed to be a professional footballer. In 1961 he decided to try his hand at singing, and along with The Raiders he auditioned for eccentric producer Joe Meek, but he wasn’t impressed.
Soon after, Stewart turned into a left-wing beatnik, listening to the folk music of Bob Dylan, Ewan MacColl and Woody Guthrie and attending protest marches, getting arrested three times between 1961 and 1963. He later confessed he often used the marches as a way of bedding girls. In 1962 he took to playing the harmonica and would busk at Leicester Square with folk singer Wizz Jones. They took their act to Europe, and Stewart found himself deported from Spain for vagrancy in 1963. Around this time, he was considered as a singer for The Kinks, then known as The Ray Davies Quartet.
Later that year he became a full-on Mod, adopting his trademark spiky hairstyle and becoming enthralled with soul and R’n’B music. He found his first professional job as a musician in The Dimensions. This was his introduction to London’s R’n’B scene, where he would take harmonica tips from Mick Jagger.
In January 1964 the 19-year-old had been to a Long John Baldry gig and was playing harmonica at Twickenham Station when Baldry himself heard him and invited him to join his group. Over time, Stewart overcame shyness and would dress up more, and would sometimes be billed as Rod ‘the Mod’ Stewart. He made his recording debut with Baldry and the Hoochie Coochie Men that June, uncredited. Two months later, after a performance at the Marquee Club, he was signed as a solo act to Decca Records. His debut single was the blues standard, with a terribly dodgy title, Good Morning Little Schoolgirl, which featured John Paul Jones among the session musicians.
Baldry’s group broke up, but he and Stewart patched up their differences and in 1965 became part of the line-up of new group Steampacket alongside Brian Auger. Steampacket were conceived as a white soul revue, and while supporting The Rolling Stones he had his first taste of crowd hysteria. Due to all being signed to different labels, Stewart’s group were unable to record any material. His solo career continued, but without making much impact. In 1966 he jumped ship from Steampacket to Shotgun Express, whose line-up included future Fleetwood Mac members Peter Green and Mick Fleetwood.
It was The Jeff Beck Group that finally gave Stewart his break when he joined their ranks in February 1967. He formed a long-lasting friendship with guitarist Ronnie Wood, began writing material, and his vocal technique developed into the rough rasp that made him stand out. However, he and Beck didn’t get on, and when Wood was announced as Steve Marriott’s replacement in Small Faces in June 1969, Stewart joined him a few months after as their new singer, and they became Faces.
At the same time, Stewart was making inroads with his solo career. Now with Mercury Records, he released his first album, An Old Raincoat Won’t Ever Let You Down, a mix of well-received original material and rock, folk and blues covers.
1970 saw the release of both Faces’ debut LP First Step and his solo follow-up Gasoline Alley, which introduced the mandolin to his sound. Faces quickly amassed a dedicated following at their gigs, and Stewart was one single release away from becoming a household name. The plan was for (Find a) Reason to Believe to be the first single from his forthcoming album, Every Picture Tells a Story, with Maggie May as the B-side.
Reason to Believe (the bracketed bit dropped upon its single release) was the final track on the accompanying album. It’s a cover of a Tim Hardin track, which the folk singer had released on his debut album in 1965, and The Carpenters covered it in 1970.
Stewart plays the wounded lover, whose girl has lied to him. His gravelly voice suits the song well, and there’s some nice Hammond organ and piano work courtesy of Faces’ Ian McLagan. It’s a good album track, but it was never going to light up the charts the way its flip side did. So much so, the single became a double A-side as word spread.
Stewart has rather pissed away his potential over the years, and growing up in the 80s, I saw him as a ridiculous figure. However, Maggie May is a classic, and it’s the best number 1 he’s had. There’s no chorus, but it’s a compelling story, with a memorable mandolin intro courtesy of Lindisfarne’s Ray Jackson.
Stewart had been inspired to write the song while working out some chords with guitarist Martin Quittenton of Steamhammer. He recalled his experience of losing his virginity in 1961 to an older woman at the Beaulieu Jazz Festival. The song isn’t named after her though. Stewart took it from the old Liverpool folk song about a prostitute (as briefly heard on The Beatles album Let It Be). Amazingly, you can see him taking part in the event here. The festival, not the self-confessed very brief sex… Also on the recording, which was only added to the album at the last minute, are Wood on bass and 12-string, McLagan and drummer Micky Waller, who played a drumkit with no cymbals, which were added later.
The original version of Stewart’s song opened side two of Every Picture Tells a Story with a 30-second guitar intro from Quittenton, named Delilah. In full, it’s over five minutes long, but the single edit cuts off some of the detail.
However, Stewart’s tale of love for an older woman remains fascinating. He gets you interested right from the start with those famous opening lines, revealing he was in fact a schoolboy when he was sleeping with Maggie. More mature than your average love song, Stewart finds time to insult Maggie only to remind her how deep he feels about her before she has chance to slap him:
‘The morning sun, when it’s in your face really shows your age But that don’t worry me none in my eyes, you’re everything’
Stewart resolves to get over May by, among other things, joining a ‘rock’n’roll band’ (mission accomplished), and although he claims he wishes he’d never seen her face, you don’t believe him, and as that beautiful mandolin rings out over the fade, you’re left wondering what happened to the singer that wrote such a great song.
A song that’s taken on new meaning to me of late, as my in-laws fell in love when this was in the charts (Maggie was my father-in-law’s name for his future wife) and it was played at his funeral, 48 years later. It’s difficult to listen to anymore without welling up.
Maggie May established Stewart both here and in the US, reaching number 1 in both while he also held the number 1 album spots – a rare feat. Above you can see the famous Top of the Pops appearance of the song, in which he’s backed by his Faces bandmates and Radio 1 DJ John Peel miming the mandolin.
Reason to Believe: Tim Hardin/Maggie May: Rod Stewart & Martin Quittenton
Producer: Rod Stewart
Weeks at number 1: 5 (9 October-12 November)
Fashion photographer Simon Atlee – 9 October Comedian Sasha Baron Cohen – 13 October Big Brother winner Craig Phillips – 16 October Actor John Alford – 30 October Archer Alison Williamson – 3 November Footballer Michael Jeffrey – 8 November
Independent MP AP Herbert – 11 November
13 October: The British Army began destroying roads between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland as a security measure.
21 October: 20 people were killed in a gas explosion in the town centre of Clarkston, East Renfrewshire in Scotland.
23 October: When a car failed to stop at a Belfast checkpoint, Mary Ellen Meehan, 30, and her sister Dorothy Maguire, 19 were shot dead by soldiers.
28 October: Prime Minister Edward Heath scored a big victory when the House of Commons voted in favour of joining the EEC by a vote of 356-244. Also on this day, the Immigration Act 1971 restricted immigration, particularly primary immigration into the U.K. and introduced the status of right of abode into law. Plus, the UK became the sixth nation to launch a satellite into orbit using its own launch vehicle, the Prospero (X-3) experimental communications satellite.
30 October: The Democratic Unionist Party was founded by the formidable Reverend Ian Paisley in Northern Ireland.
31 October: A bomb, likely planted by the Angry Brigade, exploded at the top of London’s Post Office Tower.
10 November: The 10-route Spaghetti Junction motorway interchange was opened north of Birmingham’s city centre. The interchange would have a total of 12 routes when the final stretch of the M6 was opened in 1972.
Matthews Southern Comfort, led by former Fairport Convention singer Ian Matthews, had a surprise number 1 with this beautiful cover of Joni Mitchell’s epitaph to the Woodstock Music and Arts Festival 1969, which also seemed to mourn the end of the optimism of the hippy movement, and touched a nerve following the recent death of the festival’s headliner Jimi Hendrix. Of the three famous versions out there, this is the best.
Mitchell hadn’t actually attended or performed at the festival as her manager had told her to appear on The Dick Cavett Show instead. She was in a relationship with Graham Nash at the time, though and he was there performing as part of his new supergroup with David Crosby and Stephen Stills. Watching the events unfold on TV from her hotel room had a profound effect on the singer-songwriter, and she put pen to paper.
Woodstock turned Max Yasgur’s farm that hosted the festival into the garden of Eden, and the journey to the site became a spiritual journey that would lead to enlightenment. Mitchell imagines meeting a child of God on their way to the site, starts to feel like she can be a part of a movement, and before you know it there are half a million likeminded souls.
She began performing her new song only a month after Woodstock, at the Big Sur Music Festival. Her recorded version found its way on to her third album Ladies of the Canyon in March 1970. It’s a sparse, low-key arrangement, performed on an electric piano. Sadly, it’s somewhat spoilt by her annoying double-tracked backing vocals.
Around the same time, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young (for Neil Young had joined the fray) released their version on the album Déjà Vu. They had recorded a version with Jimi Hendrix while working on the song, released on the outtakes album Both Sides of the Sky (2018). I’m a huge fan of CSNY, but find their version of Woodstock somewhat of a misfire. They ditch the haunting melancholy of the original and turn it into a rather bog-standard rock anthem. An alternate take was used to close Michael Wadleigh’s Woodstock documentary (1970). Which brings us to Matthews Southern Comfort. But who were they?
Ian Matthews MacDonald was born 16 June 1946 in Barton-upon-Humber, Lincolnshire. When he was 12 the MacDonalds moved to Scunthorpe, close to where I live. He left school at 16 and worked as an apprentice signwriter, and by the mid-60s he was performing in local bands. MacDonald moved to London in 1965 and formed surf music trio The Pyramid.
In the winter of 1967 he was recruited to sing for the then-new rock band Fairport Convention, and was among the line-up to record their eponymous debut (1968) and follow-up What We Did On Our Holidays in 1969. Sometime between the two, MacDonald changed his name to Ian Matthews (his mother’s maiden name), to avoid confusion with Ian MacDonald of King Crimson.
However, the second LP by the band saw them moving toward the traditional folk for which they would become so influential, and Matthews departed during the making of Halfbricking in 1969.
He quickly began work on his debut solo album, Matthews’ Southern Comfort, featuring more of the US country sound he performed. The line-up featured former Fairport colleagues like Richard Thompson, and included his own material as well as covers. Matthews put together a touring band, called Matthews Southern Comfort (minus the apostrophe), featuring lead guitarist Mark Griffiths and Gordon Huntley on pedal steel guitar from the album, plus new members Carl Barnwell on guitar, bassist Andy Leigh and Ray Duffy on drums.
Matthews Southern Comfort released their debut LP Second Spring in July 1970, and the world shrugged. However, a month prior to that they had recorded a set for BBC Radio 1’s Live in Concert. They needed one final song, and Matthews had recently bought Mitchell’s Ladies of the Canyon. The band kept their version of Woodstock faithful to the original, and it went down so well, the BBC contacted their label about it. Uni Records suggested it was recorded and added to their next album, Later That Same Year. Matthews refused, but said it could become a single. However, while recording the new version, the arrangement was radically altered, in part to suit Matthews’ voice.
Apparently Mitchell later told Matthews this was her favourite version of Woodstock, and I agree completely. This recording is sublime. Matthews Southern Comfort perfectly capture the sadness of the end of an era, the feeling that the counterculture didn’t pull it off. That we never did get ‘back to the garden’. Of special note is Huntley’s steel guitar, giving the song a sense of yearning for what could have been, the circular guitar sounds (mixed down in the single version) and Matthews’ tender voice and the lovely harmonies. This version is what Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s should have sounded like.
MCA Records, the parent company of Matthews Southern Comfort’s record label, only agreed to release Woodstock if CSNY’s version tanked, which it did. But they refused to spend money on promotion upon its release in July. Luckily for Matthews and co, they had a fan in BBC DJ Tony Blackburn, who made it Record of the Week on his Radio 1 breakfast show. Here’s a great example of how long it could take a single to climb the charts back in the day. Three months to make it to number 1!
Top of the Pops would show a lovely promo film during Woodstock‘s weeks at number 1, with a beautiful hippy girl wandering around the streets and looking at posters of the Woodstock film. Doesn’t sound like much, but it’s pretty fitting.
Were the band pleased to be chart-toppers? Not really, it turned out. Matthews didn’t like the extra demands on his time being a pop star entailed, and he walked out in December, making Woodstock their final single. He went solo, and the rest of the line-up continued as Southern Comfort, releasing three albums between 1971 and 1973.
Matthews recorded two albums in 1971 (If You Saw Thro’ My Eyes and Tigers Will Survive), before forming a new group called Plainsong, which included Andy Roberts. When they collapsed Matthews continued to record while living in Los Angeles, working with Michael Nesmith of The Monkees at times during the 80s and 90s. He has gone by the name Iain Matthews ever since 1989.
In 2000 he moved to Amsterdam and continues to record and perform, sometimes reviving Matthews Southern Comfort or Plainsong. Matthews co-wrote Thro’ My Eyes: A Memoir with Ian Clayton, released in 2018.
There are similarities shared between Woodstock and Scott McKenzie’s 1967 number 1 San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair). Both are folk songs written to commemorate counterculture festivals and give them mystical meaning. Yet by the time we get to Woodstock, it’s over. Hendrix’s death in September and this track are a full stop on the 60s. And yet, the festival scene certainly wasn’t over, with the very first Glastonbury Festival taking place the day after Hendrix’s death and celebrating its 50th anniversary this June, bigger than ever. And the next number 1 would be a very fitting postscript.
Written by: Joni Mitchell
Producer: Ian Matthews
Weeks at number 1: 3 (31 October-20 November)
The Divine Comedy singer-songwriter Neil Hannon – 7 November Actor Harvey Spencer Stephens – 12 November Race walker Verity Snook-Larby – 13 November
Liberal MP Alasdair Mackenzie – 8 November Labour MP Bessie Braddock – 13 November
17 November: The Sun newspaper featured a Page Three girl for the first time. This tradition made stars of Samantha Fox and Maria Whittaker among others, but divided public opinion. However it continued for 44 years, until 2015.
20 November: The 10 shilling note ceased to be legal tender.
The first classic number 1 of the 70s, Bridge over Troubled Water‘s message of the importance of friendship in times of emotional pain made it one of the most famous songs of all time, and yet it did further damage to Simon & Garfunkel’s already strained relationship, and helped quicken their disintegration.
Paul Frederic Simon was born on 13 October 1941 in Newark, New Jersey. Arthur Ira Garfunkel was born 5 November in New York City, also 1941. They grew up three blocks from each other in Queens, New York and attended the same schools and admired The Everly Brothers. They became friends in 1953 when appearing in a sixth grade production of Alice in Wonderland. In addition to forming a street corner doo-wop quintet called The Peptones, Simon and Garfunkel began performing as a duo at school dances. In 1956 they wrote their first song, The Girl for Me and signed with independent label Big Records aged only 15.
As Tom & Jerry (Garfunkel was Tom Graph, Simon was Jerry Landis) the duo had some success with 1957 single Hey Schoolgirl, but were unable to follow it up. While both at university, and still officially a duo, Simon released a single under the name True Taylor. This can be seen as the first crack in their relationship, as it caused some resentment with Garfunkel.
They went their separate ways for some time, recording under a variety of names and working with other acts. Then in 1963, they both graduated from university and began to work together again. By now they had moved on from rock’n’roll and were both enjoying the burgeoning folk scene in Greenwich, and billed themselves as Kane & Garr. One of the songs they would perform was The Sound of Silence. Columbia Records producer Tom Wilson, who later helped Bob Dylan in his transition to electric, was impressed by the duo, and helped get them signed to the label.
In 1964, as Simon & Garfunkel, they recorded their debut LP, Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M. Featuring compositions by Simon and covers, it bombed, and Simon decided to move to the UK soon after, going solo once more.
Fast forward to 1965, and Simon had released solo album The Paul Simon Songbook, which hadn’t done too well. Garfunkel, who had been to visit his friend in the UK, was at Columbia University. Then everything changed.
The Sound of Silence was gaining in popularity with colleges on the radio, and Wilson decided to make a remix featuring electric instruments and drums, without telling either of them. Simon was horrified when he found out, but then the new folk-rock version hit number 1 in the US in January 1966. He hastily returned to the US, and they reunited to quickly record a new album, Sounds of Silence. Featuring remade versions of tracks from Simon’s solo LP, including I Am a Rock, it was a rush-job, but extremely popular, and they were famous at last.
They decided to take time over their third album, and became more interested in production, while making Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme, released that October. With their version of Scarborough Fair/Canticle, and a remade Homeward Bound among the included material, it was one of their best collections.
Simon developed writer’s block while working on the next album, but managed to pen material for Mike Nichols’ smash romantic comedy The Graduate in 1967, including Mrs. Robinson. Fourth album Bookends eventually surfaced in 1968, and included the title track, America and Hazy Shade of Winter.
By now huge recording and touring stars, their partnership began to suffer, thanks in part to Garfunkel’s acting career. Simon was to join him in Nichols’ Catch-22 (1970) but found his part written out. Matters were exacerbated by the filming taking longer than expected. Eventually they began work, with members of The Wrecking Crew and producer Roy Halee on their fifth and final album, turning down an invitation to perform at Woodstock Festival while doing so.
What was to become the title track began originally as a gentle two-verse guitar number that had been inspired in part by a line from 1958 song Mary Don’t You Weep, a gospel track by the Swan Silvertones: ‘I’ll be your bridge over deep water if you trust in me”. Simon later presented singer-songwriter Claude Jetter with a cheque to acknowledge his inspiration. The civil rights unrest and political assassinations in the stormy years leading up to this time also helped Simon come up with a message of hope.
Over the years, the duo have both given different stories over what happened next. Simon claimed he thought it would be perfect as a solo spot for Garfunkel’s angelic voice, but that he didn’t want to do it, and Simon felt hurt. Garfunkel says Simon was gracious when Garfunkel told him politely that he felt Simon should do it as it sounded lovely performed by him. Who knows – but I do know from reading and seeing interviews that both men can be oversensitive and precious.
Simon & Garfunkel, musicians and production crew assembled at CBS studios to work Bridge over Troubled Water out in November 1969. The final track to be recorded for the album, but the first to be completed, it was felt that, as nice as it was, the song should feature an extra verse, and open out to become a real epic in the style of a Phil Spector number. And so Simon wrote the ‘silver girl’ verse at Garfunkel’s suggestion, but wasn’t too keen. While some say it’s a reference to a drug user’s needle, it’s apparently an in-joke – Simon’s wife Peggy Harper had noticed she was turning grey. Simon seems to regret ever adding a third verse, and he’s not alone in that.
Bridge over Troubled Water has been criticised for being calculated and manipulative – a glossy exercise in tugging the heartstrings, and that it’s too epic, too, that it would have been better in its original incarnation. I understand all these points, and it’s certainly been used since in countless covers as the go-to song to make people emotional, but I think it’s simply a beautiful song and that no amount of stories of two stars whose egos were incompatible can spoilt it for me.
Simon is right in that the first verse, in particular, is the most moving. Garfunkel’s always beautiful voice is perfect here, and I admire the technical brilliance of being able to wring every bit of emotion out of each syllable. Garfunkel later claimed this verse took the most amount of takes, whereas the finale was the easiest. Wonderful support on the piano by Larry Knetchel, too. The performance makes me imagine that the person Garfunkel is singing to is so fragile, his almost hushed tones are all they can take.
He/they grow in strength in the second verse, adding meaning to Simon’s already powerful words, and the cymbal crashes from Hal Blaine suggest the message is getting through. Then the strings come in, courtesy of Jimmy Haskell, who had misheard the name of the song and labelled his arrangement Like a Pitcher of Troubled Water. Bass enters the fray, and Blaine gets on the drum kit. Its unclear whether that’s double-tracked singing from Garfunkel or Simon finally getting his voice heard, but I think it’s the former. Yes, the lyrics don’t match what came before, but the music picks up the slack, and then the epic rousing finale, in which Garfunkel gives it his all, leaving the darkness behind, with Blaine creating that unique drum sound by slapping the chains from his snow tyres on to his snare drum (used again on The Boxer). If this track hasn’t at least once made you want to cry when your defences are down (or just very pissed), are you even human?
The song was complete, and despite being over five minutes in length, label boss Clive Davis insisted it was too good to be anything but the first single from the album. He was totally correct, of course. It went to number 1 in the US in February, then the UK a month later, and like Wand’rin’ Star before it, it kept The Beatles’ swansong single, Let It Be, from number 1. Clearly, the mood of the time was for gospel-influenced, big message songs. The Beatles may be the greatest band of all time, but Bridge over Troubled Water was the better song here. It rightfully went on to be one of the biggest-selling singles of all time.
And the album named after the song was also huge. It was the bestseller of 1970, 71 and 72, and until Michael Jackson’s Thriller it was the biggest of all time. But Simon & Garfunkel had had enough of each other for the forseeable. In 1971, the same year their final LP won six awards at the Grammys, they split.
Simon would confess to Bridge over Troubled Water causing him to feel jealous – he resented sitting in the wings watching Garfunkel getting adulation for performing his song. You’d be forgiven for thinking he needed to get over himself. But it’s also proof that you can be an incredible songwriting talent and still be as petty as any other human, I suppose.
The duo got back together in 1972 for a benefit concert for Democrat hopeful George McGovern, but it was another three years before they spoke to each other when they visited a recording session by John Lennon and Harry Nilsson. They collaborated in the studio once more, and came up with a new single, My Little Town, which was a hit. For the rest of the 70s they would occasionally make rare TV and live appearances. Garfunkel would have two UK number 1s, most notably the beautiful Bright Eyes from animated movie Watership Down (1978) – it was number 1 on the day I was born, 19 April 1979.
The 80s began with both Simon and Garfunkel’s solo careers in decline, until they were persuaded to perform at a free concert in Central Park, New York City in 1981. An incredible 500,000 attended the show – the largest ever at the time. They tried to capitalise on the renewed interest with a world tour in 1982, but old tensions rose and they barely spoke to each other throughout. Warner Bros. pushed for a tour extension and reunion album, but after early recording attempts, Simon opted for a new solo LP instead, with Garfunkel’s refusal to give up cannabis among the reasons given. Simon would go on to be very popular for the rest of the decade, particularly for his crossover world music album Graceland in 1986.
Simon & Garfunkel were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990, and managed to perform three songs together, despite Simon being pretty snide in his speech, and the duo refusing to speak to each other afterwards. A year later Simon did his own Central Park show, pointedly refusing an offer from his former partner to join him there. However in 1993 they were touring once more. Guess what? They fell out again for the rest of the decade.
In 2001 Simon was inducted into the Hall of Fame as a solo artist. He thanked Garfunkel, but ended up saying he wasn’t in a rush to make peace with him, either. Nice. A lifetime achievement Grammy for the old friends/sworn enemies in 2003 resulted in another halt to their Cold War. They toured the US and Europe for a year, and performed at a Hurricane Katrina benefit in 2005. Their final performance as Simon & Garfunkel took place at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival in 2010, with the latter struggling with vocal cord paresis. Further dates were postponed indefinitely, and it would be four years before his voice was back to full strength.
Simon announced his retirement from touring in 2018. Does that mean we’ll never see them on stage ever again? Who knows. They’re both approaching 80, and it seems Simon in particular is unlikely to want to do so, but it would be nice to think they could end their days as friends once more. Hopefully it would be for genuine reasons, rather than the money.
If it doesn’t happen, best to take comfort in the fact the duo were able to produce some brilliant songs, had real alchemy together, and that despite the result it had on their relationship, Bridge over Troubled Water has helped so many people for 50 years.
Among the multitude of covers, it’s been number 1 twice since, for great causes – making up part of A Bridge over You, the 2015 Christmas number 1 by Lewisham & Greenwich NHS Choir, and in its own right in 2017, when stars including Robbie Williams, Rita Ora, Roger Daltrey and Stoemzy united under the banner Artists for Grenfell.
Written by: Paul Simon
Producers: Roy Halee, Paul Simon & Art Garfunkel
Keyboard: Larry Knechtel
Weeks at number 1: 3 (28 March-17 April)
April Fool’s Day: Everton won the Football League First Division title.
10 April: Paul McCartney announces that he has left The Beatles, marking the end of the Fab Four.
11 April: Chelsea and Leeds United drew 2–2 in the FA Cup final at Wembley Stadium, making it the first to require a replay since 1912.
16 April: The controversial Dr. Ian Paisley entered the Parliament of Northern Ireland after winning the Bannside By-election.
Folk duo Zager and Evans’ one and only hit In theYear 2525 (Exordium & Terminus) was a kitschy sci-fi doom-laden track that proved to be a timely release in the aftermath of the Apollo 11 moon landing. But it’s certainly no Space Oddity.
Denny Zager and Rick Evans were both born in Nebraska, in 1944 and 1943 respectively. They met at Nebraska Welseyan University in 1962. While there they joined the band The Eccentrics, along with drummer Danny Schindler (who later joined The Benders… stop laughing).
In 1965 Schindler left for Vietnam, and Evans then also left the group. At some point in the previous year, he had written the original, unheard version of In the Year 2525 (Exordium & Terminus), which was likely more in keeping with the fashionable folk-rock scene of the period.
They went into the studio to record their hit after becoming a duo in 1968, by which point they had backing from Mark Dalton on bass and Dave Trupp on drums, who both also played with The Liberation Blues Band.
I don’t think I’ve ever got over the fact that In the Year 2525 (Exordium & Terminus) doesn’t live up to its name. It should be cosmic psychedelic rock, like Funkadelic, but it’s musically dull, repetitive and dated – it doesn’t even stand up to scrutiny when you try and excuse it by saying ‘well it was written in 1964 originally’. Folk music was already in much more adventurous territory back then.
Zager and Evans think they are smarter than us and want us to know that humans are doomed. Now, I happen to agree with them, especially with the current state of our politics, and reading recently that we have 18 months left to save the planet from climate change, but many artists have made this point way, way better than Zager and Evans. The lyrics are awful. Sixth-form standard, if that. Some of their predictions are prescient, such as the rise of automation, but their time scales are stupidly huge. Every verse jumps up from 2525 to 6565, with various nightmare scenarios. Some genuinely horrible, such as ‘Ain’t gonna need your teeth, won’t need your eyes’, but some which are pure pulp fiction, like taking a pill every day that controls your thoughts. Sounds like an episode of Star Trek, which never did much for me.
Then we suddenly jump to talk of judgement day in 7510, purely because they want a number that rhymes with the dire line ‘If God’s-a-coming, he ought to make it by then.’ Well, you’d hope so, wouldn’t you?! But no, we shoot all the way up to 9595, and Zager and Evans are ‘kinda wondering if mankind is still alive’. All over the same boring rhythm. And then, we’re back in the year 2525, and it starts all over again! God, please don’t wait, put us out of our misery now!
I’m all for a bit of melodrama, but the pompous vocals lay it on so thick, it goes from laughable to just really grating. I kept this song in my collection for years, as I found it comically bad for a while, then after listening to it for this blog, I realised I don’t ever want to hear it again, and deleted it. It all also sounds like I imagine a no-deal Brexit could wind up, and we’re getting dangerously close to that. Much more enjoyable is Flight of the Conchords’ spoof of this sort of thing, The Distant Future.
With the decade drawing to a close, and man landing on the moon, thoughts were turning to what the future held, and if we even had one. And purely for these reasons, Zager and Evans found themselves at number one in the US and the UK. They seized the moment and recorded an album, 2525 (Exordium & Terminus) with Trupp and Dalton plus other musicians.
And how did they follow up their number 1 single? With Mr Turnkey, a song in which they expected the listener to feel sympathy for a convicted rapist as he kills himself in prison. Poptastic! Needless to say, they this sank without trace. I’m almost curious to hear such a terrible idea for a single. Almost, but not quite.
Zager and Evans released an eponymous album in 1970, before splitting up after 1971’s Food for the Mind. The one-hit wonders disappeared, though Evans later recorded with Pam Herbert and formed his own label, Fun Records in the late 70s, on which he released new material and re-recorded Zager and Evans songs.
Evans died in April 2018, to no media attention whatsoever, which makes me feel rather sad. I may be highly critical of the song, but he had his time in the spotlight and it should have been noted, however short it may have been. In spring this year, his recordings made it on to eBay after relatives disposed of his estate.
Zager is still alive and builds custom guitars at Zager Guitars in Lincoln, Nebraska.
Written by: Rick Evans
Producers: Zager & Evans
Weeks at number 1: 3 (30 August-19 September)
29-31 August: By the time Honky Tonk Women was knocked off its lofty perch after five weeks, the second Isle of Wight Festival was in full swing. 150,000 people witnessed Bob Dylan’s comeback, and The Who put on a memorable show. Other acts included Free, The Bonzo Dog Band and The Moody Blues.
11 September: Housing charity Shelter released a report that claimed up to 3,000,000 people were in need of rehousing due to poor living conditions.
16 September: Iconic 60s fashion store Biba reopened on Kensington High Street.
The Animals had kick-started folk rock when they covered The House of the Rising Sun, but this single took folk rock to a whole new level. Californian band The Byrds were also heavily influenced by The Beatles, who in turn would be influenced by them. Music was about to get a lot more colourful.
The origin of The Byrds began in 1964 when Jim McGuinn, Gene Clark and David Crosby first worked together. All three had previously been folk singers on the coffeehouse circuit in the early-1960s. McGuinn had also worked as a professional singwriter at Brill Building, and his tutor was Bobby Darin, a UK number 1 artist twice.
By the time 1964 began, McGuinn had introduced Beatles songs to his repertoire. Clark also loved the moptops, and approached McGuinn after watching him perform at LA’s Troubadour folk club. They decided to become a Peter and Gordon-style duo and also wrote their own material. David Crosby in turn approached them after a concert, and he began harmonising with them on stage. They named themselves The Jet Set due to McGuinn’s love of aeronautics, and began recording demos.
By mid-1964 they had hired a drummer. Michael Clarke certainly looked the part, coming across like Brian Jones, but he could barely play the congas and didn’t own a drumkit, so he played cardboard boxes and a tambourine to begin with. They hired session musicians to record a single, Please Let Me Love You, and briefly changed their name to The Beefeaters to cash in on the British Invasion, but it didn’t chart. That August their manager Jim Dickson had got hold of an acetate of Bob Dylan’s Mr Tambourine Man.
Dylan had written the track earlier that year and first recorded it during the sessions for Another Side of Bob Dylan. His version was four verses of beautiful, surrealistic imagery, with lyrics completely different to anything that had topped the charts before. Dylan was fast becoming as hip and influential as The Beatles, and of course Zimmerman and the Fab Four soon crossed paths.
Despite this, The Jet Set weren’t really sure what to make of it at first. They changed the time signature and cut right back to one verse, but still had doubts. In an effort to persuade them, Dickson brought Dylan along to watch them play his song. According to Johnny Rogan in his book The Byrds: Timeless Flight Revisited (1998), an uncharacteristically enthusiastic Dylan said to the Jet Set ‘Wow, man! You can dance to that!’. His postivity rubbed off on them.
Also that summer, they watched A Hard Day’s Night (1964) and decided they needed to have the same gear as John, Paul, George and Ringo. The most important purchase to contribute to their developing sound was McGuinn’s 12-string Rickenbacker. In October, Dickson hired mandolin player Chris Hillman to be their bassist. Hillman brought country influences into the group for the first time. On November 10, thanks to their manager’s connections, and a recommendation from jazz legend Miles Davis, The Jet Set prepared for take-off by signing with Columbia. Over Thanksgiving dinner the four-piece changed their name to The Byrds, another tribute to their heroes.
On 20 January 1965 the Byrds went to record Mr Tambourine Man in Columbia Studios, Hollywood as their debut single, but producer Terry Melcher wasn’t convinced they could pull it off. He decided to be cautious and instead hired the famous session musicians The Wrecking Crew. Other than McGuinn, Clark and Crosby’s vocals, McGuinn’s guitar is the only sound on the single that belongs to the band.
Not that it really matters, as this beautiful recording is all about the vocals and guitar anyway. The Byrds may have gutted the song’s lyrics, but they fleshed out the sound, adding dreamlike, colourful shading to the words. Dare I say these colours were psychedelic? Despite wearing their influences brazenly on their sleeves, The Byrds truly were something new for the pop scene at that point. They may have still been getting their act together musically, but they were certainly moving in the right circles, meaning half the battle was already won. They looked incredibly hip, and the first signs of the US counterculture became keen followers.
The Beatles’ Ticket to Ride had broken the mold for hinting at where pop lyrics could go, but by taking Dylan and melding his abstract writing to their sound, The Byrds were, appropriately, reaching new heights. Ironically, it knocked The Hollies’ I’m Alive from the top spot, meaning David Crosby toppled his future band member Graham Nash in the UK. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Their debut single went to number 1 on both sides of the Atlantic, and they convinced Melcher they were ready to record their debut album, which went by the same name. Listening to it this week, it sounds no different to The Wrecking Crew, so perhaps Melcher was worrying for nothing. Having said that, their UK tour soon after was poorly-received. They certainly didn’t have the charisma of The Beatles or The Rolling Stones.
The Byrds were soon enveloping religious text, more Dylan songs, even Vera Lynn war anthems with their signature sound. Early the following year they released their groundbreaking single Eight Miles High, one of the first psychedelic classics. Ironically, prior to the release, Clark quit the band due to his fear of flying. He became a critically-acclaimed solo artist with songs including Dark of My Moon but was troubled and unable to eclipse The Byrds, dying in 1991 from heart failure.
Third album Fifth Dimension was released in the summer of 1966, and the band further explored jazz and raga influences. Just as psychedelia went overground, they began adding country to their sound in 1967, and So You Want to Be a Rock’n’Roll Star is believed to be a jibe at the Monkees. That same year saw Jim McGuinn find religion and change his name to Roger, and tensions erupt within the band. They sacked their management and during the sessions for what would become The Notorious Byrd Brothers (1968), Michael Clarke quit. McGuinn and Hillman were growing tired of Crosby’s out-there opinions that the press would gleefully report. They drove to his house, told him they were better off without him, and sacked him. Crosby went on to form one of rock’s first supergroups with Stephen Stills and Graham Nash, and later on Neil Young. Their first album in particular is a classic, and this lowly writer had the great pleasure of seeing Crosby, Stills & Nash perform at Glastonbury 2009.
Line-ups in The Byrds changed over and over from then on, most notably with the addition and departure of Gram Parsons, who helped the group embrace country to a greater extent and resulted in their acclaimed Sweethearts of the Rodeo album (1968). However, the hippies were annoyed at the lack of psychedelia, and the country establishment were just as annoyed at this hippy band trying their hand at country.
Around this time, the producer of Mr Tambourine Man, Terry Melcher, had a fall-out with a struggling wannabe musician called Charles Manson. The fact the producer refused to work with such an eccentric enraged Manson, and ultimately led to to the murder of Sharon Tate and others at Melcher’s former home.
1969 was a more successful year for The Byrds. Ballad of Easy Rider became the theme to the classic movie Easy Rider (1969) (albeit a solo McGuinn version) and the excellent Wasn’t Born to Follow also featured on the soundtrack. But the 70s saw the law of dimishing returns come into effect, and by 1972, McGuinn broke up the band for a lucrative reunion of the original five-piece. Predictably enough, this didn’t last long as egos had only grown over the years.
Several versions of The Byrds came and went until the original five reformed for the last time to tie-in with being entered into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The reunion was timely, as Clark died soon after, and Clarke also died two years later of liver disease.
Despite Crosby and HIllman being publicly in favour of some kind of Byrds reunion, McGuinn always refuses. Earlier in 2018, however, he and Hillman celebrated the 50th anniversary of Sweetheart of the Rodeo with a tour. For as long as these three are still alive, there will always be an audience for a Byrds reunion, though, and money talks, so I wouldn’t rule it out.
Written by: Bob Dylan
Producer: Terry Melcher
Weeks at number 1: 2 (22 July-4 August)
Author JK Rowling – 31 July
Director Sam Mendes – 1 August
Boxer Freddie Mills – 25 July
22 July: After failing to win the general election in 1964, Sir Alec Douglas-Home found himself on borrowed time as leader of the Conservatives, yet it was still a surprise when he announced his resignation. During his time as party leader he had set up the means in which the next leader would be voted in, and so five days later Edward Heath won a secret ballot, defeating Enoch Powell and Reginald Maudling to become the new Leader of the Opposition. Heath was something different for the Conservatives, as it was unusual for their leader to be from the lower-middle class. As new Prime Minister Harold Wilson had deliberately played down his posh roots, and it had helped his public image no end, this was probably a canny move by the Conservatives.
24 July: Former world light heavyweight boxing champion Freddie Mills was found in his car after being shot. Mills died the next day. He had gone into light entertainment following his retirement from boxing and the news shocked the country. It is still not known exactly what happened, but the police ruled his death was a suicide. Despite being a family man, Mills was rumoured to be homosexual, and that combined with the fact he owed money to a crime syndicate, meant all kinds of rumours have circulated, including him being a serial killer, being in a relationship with former number 1 artist Michael Halliday, or that he was sexually involved with Ronnie Kray.
29 July: The premiere of the Beatles new film, Help! (more on that next time).
It may have only spent a week at number 1, but the impact of The Animals’ TheHouse of the Rising Sun‘s was huge. It ushered in a new genre, folk rock, inspired Bob Dylan to go electric, and proved a hit single could be twice as long as was expected.
The origins of this traditional folk tale, whose author is unknown, date back hundreds of years. It shares a similar theme to the 16th-century ballad The Unfortunate Rake. Originally, the song was written from the perspective of a prostitute who worked at a brothel called the Rising Sun, with the oldest published lyrics (from 1925) beginning:
‘There is a house in New Orleans, it’s called the Rising Sun
It’s been the ruin of many a poor girl
Great God, and I for one’
The earliest recording, known as Rising Sun Blues, was performed by Clarence “Tom” Ashley and Gwen Foster in 1928. Later versions came from Woody Guthrie in 1941, Lead Belly in 1944 and 1948 (entitled In New Orleans and The House of the Rising Sun respectively), Joan Baez in 1960 and Nina Simone in 1962.
The version by The Animals most closely resembles Bob Dylan’s cover for his eponymous debut album in 1962. This is the first and certainly not the last time we’ll encounter Robert Zimmerman, who has never scored his own number 1 but whose songs have topped the charts several times over the years.
Dylan had swiped his arrangement too, from fellow folk revivalist Dave Van Ronk. An unusually sheepish Dylan asked Ronk if he was okay with him recording it, and Van Ronk asked him to hold off as he was about to go into the studio to record it himself. Dylan then admitted he had already recorded it.
The Animals formed when singer Eric Burdon joined The Alan Price Rhythm and Blues Combo, who had been a unit since 1958. Making up the rest of the band were Alan Price on organ and keyboards, Hilton Valentine on guitar, Bryan ‘Chas’ Chandler on bass and John Steel on drums. It’s usually believed that their new name came from their wild stage act, but in 2013 Burdon claimed they used their name by way of tribute to a mutual friend known as ‘Animal’ Hogg.
They moved to London in 1964 in the wake of Beatlemania to get signed, and subsequently did, to EMI Columbia. The group specialised in heavy versions of R’n’B numbers, and their first single, Baby Let Me Take You Home narrowly missed out on the top 20. According to Burdon, The Animals first heard The House of the Rising Sun in a Newcastle club, sung by Northumbrian folk singer Johnny Handle. They were touring with Chuck Berry, and were searching for a number to close their sets with that would make them stand out from other groups. It’s doubtful they realised they had stumbled upon their sole chart-topper.
Producer Mickie Most certainly didn’t realise. Most made a name for himself as a producer of many hit singles over the 60s and 70s, and clearly had an ear for a good tune. But really, who could blame him for thinking The House of the Rising Sun was too long and not commercial enough?
It took only 15 minutes and one take in a tiny studio to record one of the decade’s most memorable number 1s. Valentine’s spine-tingling arpeggio intro, in which he plays Dylan’s chord sequence but on an electric guitar, is one of the greatest openings to a song of all time. Then Burdon’s deep growl begins, and the rest is history. Some have argued that the lyric change to make it about a man with a gambling addiction make the theme of the song less interesting, and they have a point, but really, all should be forgiven during this tour de force.
No number 1 had ever stayed stuck in one groove before, and certainly not for over four minutes (previously the record for the longest duration for a number 1 belonged to Harry Belafonte’s Mary’s Boy Child in 1957; The Animals would hold the record until the Beatles’ Hey Jude in 1968). The feeling is hypnotic and relentless, particularly during the second half when the band take it up a notch and Price goes to town on his Vox Continental.
I can imagine the impact of hearing this back then must have been similar to the birth of skiffle, where Lonnie Donegan had plundered old tunes and added an intensity that had rarely been heard up to that point. By the time they had finished, Most was a believer.
Despite the fact the whole band contributed to the arrangement, there was only room for one name on the record label, and as Alan Price’s forename was first alphabetically, he got the credit. This would later cause resentment, as Valentine understandably thought he should receive royalties for his part.
Two months after hitting pole position in the UK charts, The House of the Rising Sun spent three weeks at number 1 in the US, becoming the first bestseller during the British Invasion to be unconnected to The Beatles. Upon hearing it on his car radio, Bob Dylan immediately stopped driving, got out and banged on the bonnet. He was blown away, and a seed had been planted.
The Animals went on to have more great hits, including We Gotta Get Out of This Place and Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood. In May 1965 Alan Price left to go solo, citing personal and musical differences and a reluctance to fly while on tour. He formed The Alan Price Set, whose highlights include Simon Smith and His Amazing Dancing Bear. Dave Rowberry became his replacement, but by the end of the year the group were already falling apart. The history books are full of bands who got a raw deal due to mismanagement, but the Animals had suffered more than most.
In 1966 Burdon formed a new backing group and they became known as Eric Burdon & The Animals, adopting a harder psychedelic sound and relocating to California. He also formed the funk band War in the following decade.
Meanwhile, Chas Chandler became Jimi Hendrix’s manager and producer and was an integral part of his success, before doing the same with Slade in the 70s. He died in 1996, aged 57.
The original line-up of The Animals reformed in 1968, 1975 and 1983, and several different versions of the band using that name have existed over the years.
The Animals stood out in 1964 for refusing to play the game and adopt the Merseybeat approach. They didn’t turn on the charm, and they didn’t smile for the cameras. Another group were rising up the charts, and their fame would soon eclipse that of The Animals. The Rolling Stones were about to have their first number 1.