258. The Beatles – Hey Jude (1968)

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15 September saw the Great Flood of 1968 bring exceptionally heavy rain and thunderstorms to the south east of England. The following day, the General Post Office divided post into first-class and second-class services for the first time.

Rewind seven months, and the Beatles travelled to Rishikesh in northern India to take part in a Transcendental Meditation course under the guidance of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Without Epstein to keep them under control, John, Paul, George and Ringo were struggling to stay together since McCartney had attempted to take the reins. Drugs were also having an impact. Perhaps spirituality could help?

It did and it didn’t. They were supposed to stay for three months, but Starr was the first to leave, after ten days. He likened it to Butlin’s. McCartney left after a month. Lennon and Harrison, who had been the first to try acid, were more open-minded, and of course Harrison was deeply interested in India. However, they both left a month later upon hearing the Maharishi was trying it on with female members of their entourage. Lennon, desperate for a father figure, was particularly hurt, immortalising the experience in Sexy Sadie.

But India had helped unlock the group’s creativity, to the extent they started work on their eponymous double album that May. Upon their return, they also announced the creation of Apple Records. Apple Corps Ltd was originally conceived after the death of Epstein, with their film Magical Mystery Tour its initial release under Apple Films. Their shop, Apple Boutique, opened in December 1967, but was gone by the following June. The failure was prophetic. The Beatles were overreaching. They were the greatest band of all time, but they weren’t businessmen. Far from bringing them closer together, Apple Records helped quicken the end, behind the scenes. The press conference implied that the new label would create a utopia, where anyone could send in their music, and although it was by far the most successful part of the empire, this was largely because of the music of the Beatles.

Many believe Hey Jude was the debut release on Apple Records. ‘Apple 1’ was a single pressing of Frank Sinatra singing Maureen Is a Champ to the tune of The Lady Is a Tramp. It was a surprise gift for Starr to his wife Maureen for her 21st, apparently. The confusion arose from Hey Jude‘s marketing as one of the ‘First Four’ singles on the label.

It was clear from the start that Paul McCartney was aware of just how popular his new ballad would be. Originally called Hey Jules, he has always said it was written in sympathy for Julian Lennon. His father had left his mother for the artist Yoko Ono in May, and McCartney thought it could help heal wounds. Cynthia was touched by the gesture when McCartney played it for them in a surprise visit. McCartney had already changed the name from ‘Jules’ to ‘Jude’, but there was no doubt to its meaning.

Macca would perform his latest composition at any given opportunity, including while producing the Bonzo Dog Band’s I’m the Urban Spaceman under the pseudonym Apollo C  Vermouth. Lennon, who had often struggled with McCartney’s choices for singles over the past few years, loved the song – in part because he thought it was actually written for him, ironically as a message to move on and stick with Ono. Paul also later said that he felt Hey Jude was perhaps aimed subconsciously at himself – his relationship with Jane Asher was nearly over. He had begun an affair with Linda Eastman, and was also involved with Frankie Schwartz.

That’s the beauty of Hey Jude. It’s essential message, that love hurts, but it’s worth the struggle, so chin-up, can be applied to anyone. It helps to know you’re not alone.

Famously, when the song was first presented to John and Yoko when they visited Paul on 26 July, he told them he would fix the line ‘the movement you need is on your shoulder’, John replied, ‘You won’t you know. That’s the best line in the song’.

The Beatles first rehearsed the song three days later at Abbey Road over two nights. Recordings prove that despite the animosity within the group, they could still get on and produce magic when working on the right material. However the mood did sour when Paul refused to let George play a guitar line as a response to the vocal.

They entered Trident Studios to record the master track on 31 July, after hearing it was equipped with an eight-track console rather than the standard four. The basic track featured McCartney on piano and lead vocal, Lennon on acoustic guitar, Harrison on electric guitar and Starr on drums. On 1 August they overdubbed McCartney’s bass, backing vocals from Lennon, McCartney and Harrison, and tambourine by Starr.

At some point they had decided the song was to feature that legendary lengthy coda that spawned a thousand imitations, and beefed it up with a 36-piece orchestra. All but one member of the orchestra joined in with singing and clapping on the record, which was deliberately faded out slowly until the record was allegedly deliberately made to last one second longer than Richard Harris’s MacArthur Park. For 25 years, Hey Jude was the lengthiest number 1 single. Meat Loaf’s I’d Do Anything for Love (But I Won’t Do That), released in 1993, ran for 7:52. If you simply can’t get enough of Hey Jude, the mono version lasts that little bit longer.

Depending on whether you can hear the accidental swearing in the Kinks’ You Really Got Me (I can’t), Hey Jude is also the first number 1 to feature audible swearing. At around 2:57, listen with headphones and you hear a ‘Woah!’ followed by ‘Fucking hell!’. For a few years now I assumed this was Lennon, and some sources claim it was a result of him listening to a playback and the volume being too loud on his headphones. But according to Beatles engineer Geoff Emerick, the swearing is from McCartney who had hit a bum note. Lennon persuaded him to keep it in, insisting nobody would ever know but those in the studio. Once you’ve heard the swearing, you’ll never miss it again.

Hey Jude is one of the greatest singles of all time. I won’t be persuaded otherwise by naysayers in recent years, who’ve scoffed at the fact it’s rolled out by McCartney at the Olympics and seemingly every big UK celebration. Overfamilarity hasn’t dulled its beauty for me. As I’ve said above, it’s a beautiful, sincere message from McCartney, and it’s sung with real tenderness until the coda.

Some scoff at the coda, calling it overblown, and laugh at McCartney’s soulful interjections during the chant. They’re wrong. I recall reading somewhere a review of the song that suggested the moment the orchestra represents the moment that Jude realises the singer is right, a sort-of ‘eureka’ moment. I love that idea, and if you go along with that, it makes McCartney’s excited performance perfectly appropriate. He’s chuffed that Jude has got the message, and is thrilled for him.

You can’t blame Hey Jude for all the substandard rip-offs that followed in its wake, either. And to be fair, it was also responsible for some really good rip-offs, eg David Bowie’s Memory of a Free Festival a year later. It has been misused over the years, adopted by other singers/bands as a cheap way of lengthening their set (Robbie Williams at Glastonbury in 1998, for example), but when heard at the right time, in the right atmosphere, it can bring a tear to the eye, or make you feel pure ecstasy (the writer himself at Glastonbury in 2004, for example).

Hey Jude was released on 26 August. As mentioned earlier, it was one of the initial four Apple singles released to the public. The other three were Mary Hopkins’ Those Were the Days (produced by McCartney) which would knock the Beatles from the top spot), Jackie Lomax’s Sour Milk Sea (written and produced by Harrison) and Thingumybob by the Black Dyke Mills Band (produced by McCartney).

Michael Lindsay-Hogg was hired to film videos for the single and the B-side Revolution (for some reason, they were a double-A-side in the US, but not here). Together, they worked on a mock-live performance, where the Beatles performed to a backing track with live orchestra and vocals, as they reached the coda, the audience invade the stage and envelop the group, creating a beautiful image of band and fans as one. An enduring image, but as false as John, Paul, George and Ringo pretending they were still a cohesive unit. The Beatles were growing up and outgrowing each other.

But in September 1968, the Beatles were back on top with the best-selling single of 1968, and four out of the next five number 1s were linked to the Fab Four. After the commercial misfire of Magical Mystery Tour the year before, they ruled the world once more.

As for Hey Jude, I predict that unfortunately it’ll take the death of Paul McCartney for popular opinion to turn round and for it to be recognised as the classic it undoubtedly is, and for its writer to be recognised as a true genius alongside John Lennon.

Written by: John Lennon & Paul McCartney

Producer: George Martin

Weeks at number 1: 2 (11-24 September) *BEST-SELLING SINGLE OF THE YEAR*

Births:

Politician Grant Shapps – 14 September
Television presenter Philippa Forrester – 20 September 

Deaths:

Scottish golfer Tommy Armour – 12 September 

231. Nancy Sinatra and Frank Sinatra – Somethin’ Stupid (1967)

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Following Frank Sinatra’s ‘piece of shit’ hit Strangers in the Night, he collaborated with Brazilian composer Antônio Carlos Jobim on the album Francis Albert Sinatra & Antônio Carlos Jobim, and then recorded solo album The World We Knew. Somethin’ Stupid came out as a single just beforehand. This famous duet became known as the ‘incest song’ due to his daughter Nancy taking on the female vocals. She hadn’t maintained the level of success granted by her 1966 number 1, the iconic These Boots Are Made for Walkin’, by her producer Lee Hazelwood.

Somethin’ Stupid started life as a duet between its writer, folk singer C Carson Parks and his wife Gaile Foote, recorded in 1966 as Carson and Gaile. Parks’s younger brother was Van Dyke Parks, who worked on the Beach Boys’ ill-fated SMiLE. It was Ol’ Blue Eyes’ idea for he and Nancy to record it, and he played Carson and Gaile’s version to Hazelwood. The producer later recalled he told Frank that if he didn’t record it with Nancy, he’d have a go himself. Frank told him to book them in.

Recorded on 1 February, Frank had finished Francis Albert Sinatra & Antônio Carlos Jobim earlier that day when it came to recording his vocal. He was joined in the studio by the Wrecking Crew, with the outfit’s Billy Strange making the arrangement. Jimmy Bowen, who had brought Hazlewood and Nancy together, helped Hazelwood on production duties.

It’s a strange beast isn’t it? Had Frank listened to the lyrics before recording? Did he realise by getting his daughter involved it would give the lyrics a seedy meaning? From what little I know of Hazelwood, I imagine he knew how it would look only too well, which made it all the more appealing to him. As for Nancy, well in an interview for The Guardian in 2013, she said she thought it was ‘very sweet’ that people think it’s about incest…?

When you consider how he dominates proceedings over Nancy, who seems so meek by comparison to the strong and sexy image she portrayed on These Boots Are Made for Walkin’, you have to wonder why he didn’t just make it a solo record, considering the whole point of the song is seemingly that a man is friends with a woman but blows it by revealing his feelings go deeper.

It’s not a bad record, it’s pretty cute, and the lyrics are charming enough, but if you’re not in the mood to hear it, you can find yourself rather irritated by how twee it is. Or perhaps this is because I now can’t help but be reminded of the pointless retread by Robbie Williams and Nicole Kidman, who made it a Christmas number 1 in 2001. I have mixed feelings about Robbie Williams, but that whole attempt at being a crooner really irked me. His smug face was everywhere. Anyway, I digress, I do like the fact Frank is singing the high notes and Nancy the low, it’s a nice touch.

Neither Sinatra would have a UK number 1 again, but as we know, Frank’s career didn’t exactly dwindle. In 1968 Paul Anka, the man behind Diana, wrote English lyrics to Comme d’habitude and called it My Way. David Bowie tried and failed, but eventually came up with Life on Mars?, so it was a win-win situation.

In 1971, Frank decided to retire, having become bored by performing the same old songs night after night. He returned as soon as 1973 though, with the comeback album Ol’ Blue Eyes Is Back. Soon he was back touring the world again. Despite run-ins with the media (he caused uproar by describing Australian journalists as ‘bums, parasites, fags, and buck-and-a-half hookers’), he was as popular as ever.

In 1980 he released his first LP in six years. Trilogy: Past Present Future was a triple album, and it featured New York, New York. I always assumed this came from the 50s or 60s, but there it was, relatively late in his career. He caused controversy the following year by performing in Sun City, breaking the cultural boycott of South Africa during apartheid. Despite this, and some awful racist jokes aimed at fellow Rat Pack mem ber Sammy Davis Jr, Frank was very sympathetic to black Americans. He played a major role in the desegragation of hotels and casinos in Nevada in the 50s and 60s and played a benefit concert for Martin Luther King. It seems he became more conservative the older he got – often the case.

His views on race are a prime example of a complex character – at times he was horribly homophobic and suffered wild mood swings, from elation to crippling depression. He had an awful temper, yet was also extremely generous.

Frank’s voice began to suffer in the early 80s, but his audiences didn’t care. His alternative career in film reached its high point when he starred in Cannonball Run II in 1984. Okay, I’m being sarcastic, but I love those films and won’t have a bad word said about them. 1988 saw him reunite with Davis Jr and Dean Martin to embark on Rat Pack Reunion Tour. But Martin pulled out halfway through, and they never spoke again.

As the 90s arrived he was in his seventies, and the light in Ol’ Blue Eyes was fading, but his best-selling album came in 1993. Duets and its sequel consisted of remakes of his classic songs with artists including Aretha Frankin, Bono, Willie Nelson and his son, Frank Sinatra Jr. In 1995 he turned 80, and the Empire State Building was bathed in blue light in celebration and a star-studded concert took place, with Frank singing New York, New York one final time. Plagued by ill health including dementia and bladder cancer, he died of a heart attack aged 82 on 14 May 1998.

One of the 20th century’s giants of music, film and television, a true larger-than-life character, Frank Sinatra was buried in a blue suit with a bottle of Jack Daniel’s and a pack of cigarettes. Pretty cool. Reading into his life reveals plenty of examples of him not being so cool, but he was of a different era and had a harsh upbringing. Although easy listening is not up there with my favourite genres, I get the love for Ol’ Blue Eyes, and there truly was no singer quite like him.

And what of his duet partner and daughter? After Somethin’ Stupid, Nancy Sinatra recorded the theme to the James Bond movie You Only Live Twice that same year. She also continued to work with Hazelwood, and they duetted on psychedelic classic Some Velvet Morning. In 2002 it was covered by Primal Scream, with supermodel Kate Moss taking on Nancy’s part.

She left her father’s record label Reprise in 1971, and had a big hit in the UK when she duetted with Hazelwood again on Did You Ever? By the middle of that decade she slowed down her music and acting to concentrate on raising a family.

Nancy caused a stir in 1995 by agreeing to pose for Playboy, aged 54. She said her father was proud – which won’t help with the incest rumours I guess. 2002 saw her perform in the UK for the first time for the BBC. Two years later she released an eponymous album of collaborations with acts including U2, Jarvis Cocker and Sonic Youth. She made a decent cover of Morrissey’s Let Me Kiss You, released as a single (the two were old neighbours). She and Frank Jr also continued the family’s Mob connections by appearing as themselves in separate episodes of one of the greatest TV dramas of all time – HBO’s The Sopranos. Nancy (with the Laughing Face) is 78, and remains one of the coolest members of one of the world’s coolest families.

Written by: C Carson Parks

Producer: Jimmy Bowen & Lee Hazelwood

Weeks at number 1: 2 (13-26 April) 

Births:

The Darkness bassist Frankie Poullain – 5 April
Olympic sprinter Sandra Douglas – 22 April 
Actress Marianne Jean-Baptiste – 26 April

 

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 

 

216. Frank Sinatra – Strangers in the Night (1966)

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On 6 June, Johnny Speight’s long-running sitcom Till Death Us Do Part was first transmitted on BBC One. Starring Warren Mitchell as the bigoted Alf Garnett, it ran well into the 1970s, with a spin-off, In Sickness and in Health, beginning in the 80s.

Returning to number 1 for the first time in 12 years (easily the longest gap up to this point) was Frank Sinatra, with one of his least favourite songs that is nevertheless one of his most famous, Strangers in the Night. When I wrote about his 1954 single Three Coins in the Fountain, I neglected to trace Ol’ Blue Eyes backstory properly, only going back to earlier in the 50s. Let’s go further back this time.

Francis Albert Sinatra was born on 12 December 1915 in Hoboken, New Jersey, the only child of Italians ‘Dolly’ and ‘Marty’ Sinatra. Delivered via forceps, Sinatra was born with a perforated eardrum and severe scarring on his left cheek, neck and ear. A skinny child with bad acne, he was given tough love by his parents, and some biographers claim she abused him in his youth. His father was an illiterate boxer. Frank became interested in jazz music from a young age, and his idol was Bing Crosby. His uncle bought him a ukelele when he was 15, and he would entertain his family. Expelled from high school in 1931 for being rowdy, he took on several odd jobs and would sing for free on local radio stations. Sinatra never learnt to read music properly, and would do so by ear only.

In 1935 his mother persuaded him to join local singers the 3 Flashes. He worshipped them, but they only let him join because he had a car. Renamed the Hoboken Four, they won first prize on a local radio talent show, and Sinatra became their lead singer, provoking jealousy due to the attention he received from girls. By 1939 he was working as a singing waiter when he joined the Harry James Band as their singer, and it was with them that he released his first record, From the Bottom of My Heart. He then moved on to the Tommy Dorsey Band. Dorsey became Sinatra’s father figure, and he would learn and copy his mannerisms, and asked him to be godfather to his daughter Nancy, born in 1940.

For the next two years his popularity grew with each recording, and he pushed Dorsey to let him make music under his own name. He became obsessed with the idea of overtaking Crosby as a star, and following a legal battle he left the group. According to some newspaper reports, Sinatra’s mobster godfather had to hold a gun to Dorsey’s head in order to persuade him.

In 1943 Sinatra signed with Colombia, and Sinatramania was in full swing. It was around this time he became known as ‘The Voice’. His fame eclipsed Crosby and he would entertain US troops during World War Two. His first album, The Voice of Frank Sinatra, was released in 1946.

As the 40s became the 50s, he suffered a career slump, thanks in part to his divorce, Mafia connections, departure from Colombia and rejection from Hollywood, but an Oscar-winning role in From Here to Eternity kickstarted his comeback. In 1953 he also signed with Capitol Records and began releasing some of his most acclaimed albums over the next few years, including Songs for Young Lovers in 1954, 1955’s In the Wee Small Hours and Songs for Swingin’ Lovers! in 1956. The title track to 1958’s Come Fly with Me became one of his best-known tracks. By the end of the decade the leader of the Rat Pack was so famous he was invited to be Master of Ceremonies at a dinner for Soviet Union President Nikita Krushchev.

In 1960, in order to give himself and other performers more artistic freedom, a discontented Sinatra left Capitol to form Reprise Records and began working with Quincy Jones in addition to his usual collaborator Nelson Riddle. By the time he turned 50 in 1965 he was immensely popular once more, performing with Rat Pack pals Sammy Davis Jr and Dean Martin at The Frank Sinatra Spectacular, transmitted live to movie theatres across the US. It Was a Very Good Year (which earned him a Grammy Award) and That’s Life, both very popular singles, showcased a reflective side to Ol’ Blue Eyes.

Which brings us to Strangers in the Night. Several men have claimed ownership over the years, but it’s still Bert Kaempfert’s name on the credits. The German conductor had connections to music’s biggest stars, having co-written Elvis Presley’s awful Wooden Heart, and it was he that hired the Beatles to back Tony Sheridan on his album My Bonnie. The melody to Strangers in the Night was originally called Beddy Bye and was used a part of the instrumental score to the comedy A Man Could Get Killed (1966). English lyrics came from Charles Singleton and Eddie Snyder, and one of the film’s stars, Melina Mercouri, was supposed to get first crack at it, but she declined. Sinatra’s version was recorded on 11 April, a month before work began on the rest of the album, and among the personnel were Wrecking Crew drummer Hal Blaine and future star Glenn Campbell on rhythm guitar.

Despite its success, Sinatra not only disliked Strangers in the Night, he seemingly spent the rest of his career running it down. So why record it? Well, he needed a hit single. His albums were selling well, but singles were more important to the industry in 1966. He called it ‘a piece of shit’ when it was first played to him, but then he heard his rival Jack Jones had recorded it, and he was determined to outperform him in the charts. ‘The Voice’ was on cruise control during the recording, and as the track was about to fade, he performed the famous scat ‘dooby dooby doo’ etc. This was probably a sign of how little he regarded the song, but it became famous, and even inspired the name of the crime-fighting dog Scooby-Doo.

My opinion of Strangers in the Night lies somewhere inbetween popular opinion and Frank. It’s a nice melody, and its better than his first number 1, but he also recorded many better songs down the years. I guess a large part of its popularity may lie in the romance of the lyrics. The idea of two strangers falling in love upon first sight in the dark and then staying together all their lives is enduring.

It’s fair enough if Ol’ Blue Eyes didn’t like the song, but the homophobia he displayed at the time can’t help but spoil any enjoyment I might have. He apparently thought it was about ‘two fags in a bar’, and in a concert in Jerusalem in 1975 he changed the lyrics to ‘love was just a glance away, a lonesome pair of pants away’. Not only that, he believed Campbell was giving him the eye during the recording and insulted him. His disdain didn’t fade over the years either. When he introduced it at a concert in the Dominican Republic in 1982 he called it ‘the worst fucking song I’ve ever heard’

Nonetheless, it did the job at the time and spent three weeks at the top, and the album of the same name was one of his biggest sellers. Not bad going for ‘a piece of shit’.

Written by: Bert Kaempfert/Charles Singleton & Eddie Snyder (English lyrics)

Producer: Jimmy Bowen

Weeks at number 1: 3 (2-22 June)

Births:

Playwright Mark Ravenhill – 7 June
Actor Samuel West – 19 June 
Rally driver Michael Park – 22 June 

210. Nancy Sinatra – These Boots Are Made for Walkin’ (1966)

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The fall-out from Rhodesia continued through the rest of the winter, with the UK protesting to South Africa on 17 February over its supplying of petrol to the country. 28 February saw Prime Minister Harold Wilson announce a snap general election for 31 March. Two days later Chancellor James Callaghan announced the decimalisation of the pound, which would come into effect on 15 February 1971.

Also on 17 February, Nancy Sinatra began a month at number 1 with Lee Hazelwood’s These Boots Are Made for Walkin’, which finally brought a much-needed dose of feminism to the top of the charts.

The eldest daughter of Frank Sinatra and his first wife Nancy Barbato, Sinatra was born in Jersey City, New Jersey in July 1940. When she was five her legendary father immortalised her in song with Nancy (with the Laughing Face). He clearly wanted her to follow in his footsteps, and she spent much of her childhood having singing, piano, dance and drama lessons. In the late-1950s she was studying music, dancing and voice at the University of California, but she dropped out and in 1960 she appeared on the television special The Frank Sinatra Timex Show: Welcome Home Elvis. She was sent to the airport on behalf of Frank to welcome Presley back from his stint in the army, and performed alongside her father in a rendition of You Make Me Feel So Young/Old (delete as applicable).

In 1961 Sinatra signed to her father’s label, Reprise Records and released her debut single Cuff Links and a Tie Clip. Besides a few chart appearances in Europe and Japan, she was going nowhere, and by 1965 she was on the verge of being dropped. It was around this time that Reprise introduced her to Lee Hazlewood.

Hazelwood was best known up to this point for his work with rockabilly guitarist Duane Eddy, and he produced Peter Gunn and Rebel Rouser, among others. He had written These Boots Are Made for Walkin’ with the intention of recording it himself. It’s more than fair it would have had a fraction of the impact if this had been the case. In an article for Los Angeles Magazine in 2016, Sinatra recalled Hazelwood had come over to her parents’ house to audition songs for her. The minute he played the infamous bass line on his guitar, she was hooked. But ‘he said, “It’s not really a girl’s song. I sing it myself onstage.” I told him that coming from a guy it was harsh and abusive, but was perfect for a little girl to sing. He agreed. When he left, my father, who had been sitting in the living room reading the paper, said, “The song about the boots is best.”’

Sinatra recorded the song on 19 November 1965 in Hollywood, with the Wrecking Crew providing the backing. Hazlewood’s idea to have her sing it in a lower register was a genius move, as was that slinky descending, dare I say, groovy opening. Sinatra’s had enough of her lover’s cheating ways despite his promises to change. What makes it so effective, and revolutionary at the time, is the fact she isn’t angry, or sad. She’s cool, calm, collected and entirely in charge, and it’s for these reasons (along with the boots imagery, obviously) that make These Boots Are Made for Walkin’ so sexy. A sexy number 1 by a female artist – how many times had that happened up to this point? Sinatra’s father famously denounced pop in the 60s, which is ironic, considering his own daughter helped invent modern female pop as we know it. I’m not going to mention ‘girl power’. Oh, I just did.

Sinatra’s image change to help her promote the song also pioneered 60s fashion, and there’s good reason the track is used in spoof spy film Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery (1997). Her bleached-blonde hair, heavy eye make-up, mini-skirt and boots are the epitomy of 60s glamour, and the film she made for the track, with go-go dancers parading behind her, is truly iconic.

These Boots Are Made for Walkin’ was still at number 1 on 5 March, when BOAC Flight 911 crashed during severe turbulence over Mount Fuji soon after taking off from Tokyo International Airport in Japan. All 124 on board were killed. Four days later, gangster Ronnie Kray, one half of infamous East End criminal duo the Kray Twins, shot dead George Cornell, an associate of the rival Richardson Gang. And two days after that, Chi-Chi, London Zoo’s giant panda, was flown to Moscow to get it on with Moscow Zoo’s An-An. Wonder if they played them the number 1 of the time?

Written & produced by: Lee Hazelwood

Weeks at number 1: 4 (17 February-16 March)

Births:

Comedian Ben Miller – 24 February 
Comedian Alan Davies – 6 March 
Politician Gregory Barker – 8 March 
Author Alastair Reynolds – 13 March 

Deaths:

Politician Viscount Astor – 8 March 

Every 50s Number 1

The Intro

So, my first decade of number 1s is finished, 94 songs and seven months later. When I decided to review every UK number 1, I considered taking a random approach, but I decided starting right from the beginning would give me a wider knowledge of the progression of pop and pop culture in the UK. I did find the idea of kicking off with the 1950s a potentially arduous task, however. Although there are exceptions, my interest in music tends to really start in 1963 with the Beatles first album, and I know I’m not alone in feeling like that. I feared starting with the 50s would put some readers off. Also, it’s the decade that’s as far out of my comfort zone as I’m going to get with this mammoth blog task I’ve set myself.

Except maybe it isn’t.

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

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

1952/53

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

The Best:

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

The Worst:

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

1954

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

The Best:

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

The Worst:

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

1955

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

The Best:

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

The Worst:

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

1956

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

The Best:

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

The Worst:

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

1957

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

The Best:

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Lonnie Donegan & His Skiffle Group – Cumberland Gap: I used to think skiffle was a rather laughably quaint genre played on cheap, silly instruments. It’s only by listening to what came before Lonnie Donegan that I now understand and appreciate its true effect – to me it’s now almost as important as punk. The hardest part of choosing the best of 57 was picking between this and Donegan’s Gamblin’ Man, with it’s fiery ending, but Cumberland Gap came first and sounded like nothing I’d listened to up to that point.

The Worst:

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

1958

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

The Best:

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

The Worst:

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

1959

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

The Best:

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

The Worst:

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

The Best 50s Number 1 Ever is…

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

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

The Worst 50s Number 1 Ever is…

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

The Outro

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

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

91. Bobby Darin – Mack the Knife (1959)

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It’s the 1950s, you’ve had a big hit that’s resulted in you gaining a huge fan following, particularly of teenage girls who wish they could be your Dream Lover – how do you follow it up? Well, if you’re Bobby Darin, you release a swinging celebration of a serial killer. Darin’s version of Mack the Knife remains the most famous version – and there are a lot out there.

Mack the Knife was originally known as Die Moritat von Mackie Messer. It was composed by Kurt Weill, with lyrics by Bertolt Brecht, for their play Die Dreigroschenoper, known over here as The Threepenny Opera. The song was written at the last minute before it’s premiere in 1928, to introduce the killer Macheath. The song was first introduced to US audiences in 1933, but it was Marc Blitzstein’s 1954 version, with less graphic lyrics to appeal to conservative America, that’s still in use today. In 1956 the US charts were awash with versions of Mack the Knife, with the first by The Dick Hyman Trio. Jazz supremo Louis Armstrong was responsible for the first version with vocals. In addition to the female victims listed in the song, Armstrong ad-libbed a mention of Lotte Lenya, the widow of Kurt Weill, who had starred in the original production, and the then-current off-Broadway version, who was present while Armstrong recorded. This was left in Darin’s version by mistake, and most subsequent versions on account of Darin’s being considered the essential recording.

Darin fell in love with Mack the Knife while watching The Threepenny Opera in 1958, and worked the song into his live act. Fresh from the success of Dream Lover, Darin was given more freedom over his sound, and his desire to move away from the teen-pop that had made him famous helped him to surprise his audience by making Mack the Knife the opening track on his next album, That’s All. This was the first time a major pop idol had tried to change tack to such an extent. However, even Darin wasn’t sure about releasing such a statement of intent as a single, and it was Atlantic Records co-founder, and Darin’s producer Ahmet Ertegun that ordered its release. As was usually the case in Ertegun’s career, he was right to do so.

Darin should never have doubted Mack the Knife‘s potential really. Granted, the lyrics are easily the darkest there had ever been at number 1, even after being cleaned up for the US, but I can imagine a lot of listeners weren’t even taking notice of the words, as it’s so easy to get wrapped up in the music. Darin really is on fire here, and there’s no wonder even Frank Sinatra, who recorded his own version, believed Darin’s was the best. He sounds smooth, assured and in his element, and the band really knock it out of the park with a punchy performance. By the time you reach the end, you’re rooting for Mack to take another life. Or was that just me? This is one of the decade’s very best number 1s, in my eyes.

Mack the Knife hit the top spots in the UK and US, and later won him two Grammy Awards. He followed it with the equally memorable Beyond the Sea. He continued to experiment with genres, trying his hand at country, and still charted highly. He also acted on TV and met and fell in love with Sandra Dee (yes, that Sandra Dee) on the set of his first film, Come September (1961), in which they starred together. They married and had a son, and starred in further films, but divorced in 1967.

Around this time, Darin had become increasingly politically active. He had his first hit in two years in 1966 when he covered folk singer Tim Hardin’s If I Were a Carpenter. He befriended Robert F Kennedy, worked with him on his presidential campaign and was at the Ambassador Hotel the night he was assassinated. This, and learning of his true parentage (more here) resulted in him becoming a recluse for a year. Upon his return to public life he set up his own record label, Direction Records, releasing folk and protest music.

In the 70s Darin had remarried and had several TV shows, but his health problems began to catch up with him. Some think his drive and desire to cram so much into his life came about due to his weakened heart, which was caused by rheumatic fever when he was eight. Darin suspected he was likely to die younger than most, and unfortunately he was right. He first had heart surgery in 1971, and had to be administered oxygen after live shows. He suffered from sepsis in 1973, which further weakened his heart, and following an operation that lasted over six hours, Darin died in recovery, aged only 37, but he had more than left his mark. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Songwriters Hal of Fame in the 90s, and is remembered as one of many bright young talents of rock’n’roll’s early days that went too soon, who refused to be pigeonholed and whose desire to experiment proved influential. His life was immortalised in the 2004 biopic Beyond the Sea, but unfortunately the star, director, co-writer and co-producer was Kevin Spacey, so you can expect the film to be culturally erased from history now.

Written by: Kurt Weill & Bertolt Brecht/Mark Blitzstein (English lyrics)

Producer: Ahmet Ertegun

Weeks at number 1: 2 (16-29 October)

Births:

Spandau Ballet guitarist Gary Kemp – 16 October
Actress Niamh Cusack – 20 October