222. The Beatles – Eleanor Rigby/Yellow Submarine (1966)

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The Beatles spent the majority of the spring of 1966 on one task: the masterpiece that was Revolver. From George Harrison’s sarcastic counting at the start of Taxman to the dying seconds of Tomorrow Never Knows, it was a startling leap forwards in the sonic palette of the world’s biggest group.

The month after its completion, John, Paul, George and Ringo upset the first lady of the Philippines, Imelda Marcos by declining an invitation to breakfast while touring there. The subsequent riots left the group in considerable danger, and they were relieved to make it out in one piece.

Soon after they encountered controversy again in the US, after Lennon’s comments about Christianity (see Paperback Writer) were blown out of all proportion when fan magazine Datebook reprinted the comments. He tried to defend himself at a press conference, but found himself saying sorry anyway.

It is likely that they had already decided their US tour would be their last, anyway, but this fuss over nothing will have only helped their belief that there was little point any longer. They could barely be heard over the screaming, and the songs from their new album were going to be difficult to replicate without studio trickery.

Before the tour, however, came the release of Revolver to a stunned world. Unusually, they chose to release a double-A-side from the album on the very same day. That they chose two of the least traditionally pop-sounding tracks suggests to me it was a state of intent more than anything else. And as usual, it paid off, making Eleanor Rigby/Yellow Submarine the most unusual number 1 single yet.

In a 1966 interview, McCartney explained that Eleanor Rigby began life as he played around on the piano. He came up with the line ‘Miss Daisy Hawkins picks up the rice in the church’. A day later he added ‘Father McCartney’ He has always insisted there was no conscious decision to name the song after the Eleanor Rigby on the gravestone later discovered in the graveyard of St Peter’s Church in Liverpool. McCartney claims the forename came from Eleanor Bron, the female lead in Help! (1965), and the surname from a shop in Bristol.

As with many classic Beatles songs, there is some debate as to who did what. Paul played what he had to the other band members, as well as Lennon’s childhood friend Pete Shotton, at Lennon’s home. They are said to have contributed ideas, but it’s likely to be mainly a McCartney song, despite Lennon claiming several times to have a fair stake in it creatively. George Harrison is alleged to have come up with the haunting ‘Ah look at all the lonely people’ refrain, and Ringo Starr contributed ‘Writing the words of a sermon that no one will hear’. Shotton has stated the ending, in which Father McKenzie conducts Rigby’s funeral, came from him.

What is not in doubt is who did what in the studio. Although Yesterday had featured McCartney only with a string quartet, he insisted he wanted the ensemble for Eleanor Rigby to be much darker, and apart from the backing vocals from Lennon and Harrison for the refrain, he’s the only Beatle featured. This is the first time this had happened on a UK single release from the Fab Four. Macca had been listening to Vivaldi thanks to his girlfriend Jane Asher, and it was his idea to feature a violin.

George Martin did indeed arrange a stark performance from the string players, with the stabbing sounds in the verses making it akin to something from a horror film. He and Emerick demanded the players perform much closer to the mics than they were used to, and throughout recording they tried to move away in case they audibly messed up, causing Martin to lose his natural cool. The producer came up with the masterstroke of layering the backing vocals over Paul singing ‘All the lonely people’.

So much has been said about the lyrics to Eleanor Rigby over the years. It has a depth hitherto unseen in the pop charts. Since Ticket to Ride, the Beatles were taking steps to move away from the happy-go-lucky, direct pop material. Here, they cast it aside completely, to sing about loneliness and death, in an uncharacteristically blunt manner. This must have sounded simply astounding, the first time around.

So much is said, and for good reason, about the bold new musical direction of the Beatles when they released Penny Lane/Strawberry Fields Forever in 1967. Yet, surely, Eleanor Rigby/Yellow Submarine would have seemed a more incredible release? Maybe it’s because, as formidable as Eleanor Rigby is, it’s a song to appreciate rather than enjoy. The emotional detachment from the narrator to the characters perhaps rubs off on the listener a little too much in the end. It should put paid to the cliche that Lennon was always the ‘arty’ one of the duo, though.

Eleanor Rigby began in the studio on 28 and 29 April, and was finished on 6 June. The best way to hear it is the original mono version, or the reworked stereo version on 1, which corrects the error in which McCartney’s vocal is accidentally double-tracked at the start of the first verse.

The flip side, Yellow Submarine, couldn’t be more different. Over the years, as with many Beatles songs, the waters have muddied when it comes to authorship claims. In a joint 1967 interview Lennon and McCartney both took credit, with John having done the verses and Paul the chorus. Since then, McCartney has claimed the song was his and he had it in mind for Ringo Starr from day one, so he deliberately ensured his limited vocal range could take it. Originally there were going to be multi-coloured submarines, but he settled on yellow. According to Lennon in 1980, singer-songwriter and friend of the band Donovan came up with ‘Sky of blue and sea of green’.

Recording commenced on 26 May, and most of the track was finished in five takes. George Martin was ill with food poisoning, which caused the band to treat the session rather like a day at school when the class is allowed to play with board games. After much messing about, the job was done. Before finishing up, Lennon decided to add some flavour to the final verse by repeating Ringo’s lines a funny voice as if he was speaking through a megaphone. Due to an accident, the original stereo version missed out the start of Lennon’s interjections.

They returned to add sound effects on 1 June. George Martin was in his element, having spent his pre-Beatles production career making comedy records full of unusual noises for acts like the Goons, with whom the Fab Four shared a similar sense of humour. Most of the afternoon was spent recording a bizarre introduction, written by Lennon, in which Ringo said ‘And we will march to free the day to see them gathered there, from Land O’Groats to John O’Green, from Stepney to Utrecht, to see a yellow submarine, we love it!’. They did the right thing abandoning this idea – having heard it via a bootleg, it doesn’t really work.

A cupboard was then raided for sound effect items. Lennon blew bubbles into a glass, and even tried to replicate the sound of speaking underwater. Friends including roadie Mal Evans, who banged a big bass drum as everyone sang along to the final chorus in a conga line, and Rolling Stones guitarist Brian Jones, who clinked glasses together. According to Ian MacDonald’s book Revolution in the Head (1994), the snippet of a brass band you hear is from the 1906 recording Le Reve Passé. Apparently, hidden among the sound effects is the cash register you hear at the start of Pink Floyd’s Money.

What to make of Yellow Submarine, eh? Understandably, it divides opinion, probably more than any other Beatles song, and certainly any other single. Sometimes, if I’m honest, I can be listening to Revolver, it comes on, and I think ‘Oh nevermind, it’ll be over soon’. Like most novelty songs, it can be irritating. Why didn’t they just make it a B-side? Well, probably due to the drugs, and partly because they just could. This was 1966, the musical horizon was expanding rapidly, and the band’s imaginations were limitless at the time.

I can’t understand the fans who hate it, though. It’s a bit like those who use McCartney’s We All Stand Together as a stick to beat him with. Both tracks are bloody good children’s songs. I have a very early, hazy memory of being at school and learning about Yellow Submarine, which may have been my first exposure to the Beatles, so I can’t help but have a soft spot for this funny little song that was sung by the man who would narrate one of my favourite programmes growing up – Thomas the Tank Engine. And, all these years later, I would sing it to my eldest when it was her bath time as a baby.

Yellow Submarine was so iconic, a whole psychedelic animated feature film was released in 1968, named after it, and telling the tale of how the Beatles saved Pepperland from the Blue Meanies. It’s far from the best work linked to the Fab Four, and drags in places, but as always the songs are great, and there’s some astounding animation on display. I was blown away the first time I saw the film’s opening, featuring Eleanor Rigby.

Such was the group’s status at the time, this single, like all the others since From Me to You, hit number 1. However, it was the end of an era in some ways. On 29 August, the Beatles played their final gig, at San Franciso’s Candlestick Park. There would be no Christmas single in 1966, and famously, Penny Lane/Strawberry Fields Forever didn’t top the charts, ending an incredible run of 11 concurrent number 1s.

Written by: John Lennon & Paul McCartney

Producer: George Martin

Weeks at number 1: 4 (18 August-14 September)

Births:

Garbage singer Shirley Manson – 26 August

217. The Beatles – Paperback Writer (1966)

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On 29 June, Barclays Bank introduced the Barclaycard, which became Britain’s first credit card in November 1967. Four days later, 31 arrests were made outside the US embassy when a protest against the Vietnam War turned violent.

At this point, the Beatles had finally got off the treadmill of one film, two albums and a million tours, when a planned third movie was cancelled. This afforded the Fab Four the chance to finally give album production more care and attention than they were used to. And to say Beatles fans felt the benefit was an understatement. The result was Revolver. John Lennon and George Harrison were now indulging in LSD, and the band entered their peak years of creativity. On April 3 they began the sessions with the album closer, the mind-blowing Tomorrow Never Knows. It had to be the last track, as nothing can follow it.

A week later they set to work on a new single. Paul McCartney’s Paperback Writer was an experiment in writing a pop song that didn’t concern love. There certainly hadn’t been a number 1 about writing a book before. McCartney has said in later years that he was inspired by reading an article in the Daily Mail (name-checked in the song) about an aspiring author. He’d also been considering writing a song based around one chord. He didn’t quite pull it off here, but he did come close. According to Lennon in 1972, he helped with some of the lyrics. He also described it as the ‘son of Day Tripper‘, and considering the similarity of the riff, he had a point.

There’s some dispute over who played what, but either McCartney or Harrison were behind the main riff. What is beyond dispute is Macca’s bass-playing. Lennon had complained about the lack of bass on Beatles records, and wanted to know why they couldn’t make it as loud as it sounded on soul records. They’d even considered recording Revolver at Stax Records’ studio beforehand. According to the late Geoff Emerick, who had just joined the production crew, Paperback Writer became their loudest single to date. They achieved this by using a loudspeaker as a microphone, directly in front of the bass speaker. A new piece of equipment featured in the mastering process too, known as Automatic Transient Overload Control. McCartney clearly decided to go all out, and provided his best bass line to date. It was also a sign of things to come as his bass-playing became busier over the next few years. I do think his bass skills are unsung.

While much more conventional than Tomorrow Never Knows, Paperback Writer is certainly their oddest single up to this point. It may not have the trippy sounds of Revolver‘s closer, or even the pioneering backwards vocals on the B-side, Rain, but few bands did harmonies as well as the Beatles, so to hear them pushed to the foreground so much, with echo laid on top, still sounds exciting. It’s an unusually messy recording by the Beatles’ standards, with Lennon and Harrison laughing their way through ‘Frere Jacques’ in the background. It bears no relation to the theme of the song, but somehow it fits. Apparently it was made up on the spot during recording.

I love this pre-Pepper, jangly era of songs like She Said She Said and And Your Bird Can Sing, and wish there was more of it. If you can, check out the mono version over the stereo, as the extreme separation on the latter spoils the effect, and it’s also missing some of the echo.

Due to the Beatles increasing studio experimentation, live promotion of their singles was becoming increasingly difficult to pull off. Another reason for them to be considering ending touring, no doubt. As with the last few singles, they recorded promotional videos for the A and B-sides. Michael Lindsay-Hogg directed all four, with the most famous being the colour films made around Chiswick House. The Fab Four did attempt a live performance on Top of the Pops that June, but the clip, along with so many, was erased from history.

Also seemingly forgotten about is the fact that EMI used the infamous ‘butcher’ images to promote the single. Later in 1966, Capitol issued a compilation called Yesterday and Today. The original cover was a bizarre photo of John, Paul, George and Ringo in white coats, grinning away with slabs of meat and decapitated baby dolls (an outtake is featured above). It understandably didn’t go down too well, and was quickly replaced. But the image had also been used for Paperback Writer in the UK. What had they been thinking?

Well, they had hired Australian photographer Robert Whitaker for a surreal unfinished project called A Somnanbulant Adventure. McCartney stated on the Anthology television series that they had worked with him before and knew he shared their sense of humour… but he doesn’t know what Whitaker was hoping to achieve. Lennon claimed it was a protest at the Vietnam War, which seems a bold statement for the Fab Four to have made at that point. On Anthology, George Harrison typically got straight to the point and said he found it ‘gross, and stupid’. To be fair to Whitaker, he has since said he agreed with the image being banned in its unfinished state as it wasn’t getting to the point he was trying to make… that the Beatles were ‘flesh and blood’.

No, I’m still no wiser either.

Further controversy was to come for the Beatles. In March, John Lennon had been interviewed by Maureen Cleave for the Evening Standard newspaper. While discussing the decline of Christianity, he said ‘We’re more popular than Jesus now.’ Nothing was said at the time it was published, but it would come back to bite them.

Written by: John Lennon & Paul McCartney

Producer: George Martin

Weeks at number 1: 2 (23 June-6 July)

Deaths:

Writer Margery Allingham – 30 June 

215. The Rolling Stones – Paint It, Black (1966)

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1965 had been a phenomenal year for the Rolling Stones, and saw them established as the biggest rivals to the Beatles for the pop crown, despite the nihilism of rock classics (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction and Get Off of My Cloud. That December they began work on their fourth album Aftermath. Originally conceived as the soundtrack to an abandoned film, the Stones had much more time than usual to work on this album, and it showed. For the first time they released an album feauring songs only written by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, and they experimented with their sound. Featuring Mother’s Little Helper, Lady Jane, Under My Thumb and Out of Time, it’s easily their best album up to this point and perhaps their best to date.

Recorded during the same sessions in March 1966, and released as the opening track of the US version of Aftermath, Paint It, Black took the Rolling Stones into new territory, and remains a real stand-out track.

Initially it had been written with a standard rock-pop arrangement, and lyrically Jagger was continuing on the dark path of their previous two singles, but this time his disgust with the world had a reason. I only recently realised Paint It, Black specifically relates to a loved one’s sudden death, rather than general malaise and depression. Of course it was there, right in front of me, from the very start, if I’d taken proper notice of Jagger’s lyrics. The ‘line of cars and they are painted black’ refers to the funeral, and ‘I could not forsee this thing happening to you’ suggests how unexpected the death was. Something the band were to experience themselves soon… Although Jagger has never said who the song refers to, many believe it concerns a soldier in Vietnam, which is backed up by Stanley Kubrick playing it over the credits of Full Metal Jacket in 1987.

Fooling around with the song in the studio, Bill Wyman played on the organ and Charlie Watts improvised a double-time drum beat that became the song’s distinctive, unusual gallop. The band decided this rhythm would make a nice counterpoint to the bleak lyrics.

The key ingredient that elevates Paint It, Black to a classic, however, came from Brian Jones. Frustrated with his decline in importance to the band, and with Jagger and Richards now in charge, he began experimenting with new instruments and sounds. To compliment the new Moroccan feel to the song, he laid sitar over the top. Inspired by George Harrison, he was taught by Harihar Rao, a disciple of Ravi Shankar. The Beatles get all the credit for popularising the sitar, but Paint It, Black was one of the first pop songs to do so too, and the best for the time being. The whole band put in excellent performances, from Richards’ flamenco opening to the finale, in which Wyman goes crazy on the bass.

Released on 13 May, Paint It, Black quickly knocked the sunshine of Pretty Flamingo from the top of the pops, and cast a dark cloud over the optimism of the spring and summer of 1966. A world away from their early blues tracks, it proved the Rolling Stones could be just as effective at experimenting as the Beatles. It’s easily one of their greatest tracks, and one of the best number 1s of the 60s. However, the Rolling Stones began to hit a rocky patch after its release, and controversy and further experimentation led to their popularity sliding. Paint It, Black was their last number 1 until 1968.

And why did the title have that strange comma, adding emphasis on ‘Black’? A further sign of the darkness enveloping the group? No. It was just an error by Decca Records.

Written by: Mick Jagger & Keith Richards

Producer: Andrew Loog Oldham

Weeks at number 1: 1 (26 May-1 June)

Births:

Actress Helena Bonham Carter – 26 May

209. The Overlanders – Michelle (1966)

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On 30 January Palitoy first launched their Action Man figures. The UK version of Hasbro’s GI Joe, created in 1964, went on to delight children (and some adults) for decades to come. The following day, Britain officially ceased all trade with Rhodesia.

That week also saw folk-pop quartet the Overlanders begin a three-week stint at the top with their version of the Beatles’ Michelle. Originally a trio, they formed in the early 1960s and consisted of Paul Arnold on piano and guitar, Laurie Mason on piano and harmonica and Peter Bartholomew on guitar, with all three providing vocals. Originally their repertoire derived mainly from American folk tunes. The Overlanders signed to Pye Records and Tony Hatch became their producer. That July they released their self-penned debut single Summer Skies and Golden Sands to little fanfare. Third single, a cover of Chad & Jeremy’s Yesterday’s Gone briefly entered the Billboard chart during the British Invasion in 1964. After that, every release was a failure, so the Overlanders decided to beef up their sound, adding Terry Widlake on bass and David Walsh on drums during 1965. As that year came to a close, the Beatles released their sixth album Rubber Soul, and among the most popular tracks was Paul McCartney’s folk-flecked Michelle.

This song originated as a joke from years earlier. McCartney had been to a party of art students, one of whom was a French bohemian who entertained the guests with songs. Paul wrote the tune to Michelle as a spoof of that night, with comedy-French-style groaning in lieu of any lyrics. While making Rubber Soul the Beatles were considering comic songs as a potential new direction, and John Lennon suggested McCartney put some proper lyrics to his party piece.

McCartney turned to Jan Vaughan, French teacher and the wife of Ivan Vaughan, his former bandmate in the Quarrymen. It was she that came up with ‘Michelle, ma belle’, and a few days later he asked her for a French translation of ‘these are words that go together well’ . McCartney then took Michelle to Lennon, who completed the song with the ‘I love you, I love you, I love you’ bridge.

Such was the strength of the Lennon and McCartney catalogue, their album tracks were often released as singles by other artists, knowing that covering Beatles originals gave them a very good chance of scoring a hit. Although released as a single in some countries, the Beatles chose not to do so in the UK or US. At the same time as the Overlanders decided to give it a go, George Martin produced a version by David and Jonathan. However, apparently the Beatles gave their blessing to the Overlanders version, because their label Pye had agreed to Brian Epstein’s request not to release a single by Lennon’s estranged father Alfred. The Overlanders won the UK chart battle, although David and Jonathan hit number 1 in Canada.

Despite being one of the Beatles’ better-known album tracks, I’m not that big a fan. Apart from the catchy chorus, it’s a bit smarmy, fairly throwaway and should have remained a joke between the group. And the Overlanders version is worse, sounding smarmier. Beefing up the production makes the song worse, losing the fragility of George Harrison’s guitar solo (which was George Martin’s idea). Were this not a Beatles song, I’m not sure the Overlanders would have become the one-hit wonders they were.

Upon the release of their version, Paul Russell left the Overlanders to be replaced by Alan Warran. In 1967 Paul Arnold left the group to go solo and he was replaced by Ian Griffiths, and Terry Widlake left in 1968 to be replaced by Mike Wedgwood. These changes were a sure sign they couldn’t last, and soon the group was no more, sounding decidedly out-of-date by this point. Arnold formed the New Overlanders in the 70s.

Written by: John Lennon & Paul McCartney

Producer: Tony Hatch

Weeks at number 1: 3 (27 January-16 February)

Births:

Footballer Keith Dublin – 29 January
Singer Rick Astley – 6 February
Journalist Sarah Montague – 8 February 

Deaths:

Barrister Ronald Armstrong – Jones 27 January 

207. The Beatles – Day Tripper/We Can Work It Out (1965)

PEG6MOB.jpgAs Christmas 1965 approached, tension increased between the UK and Rhodesia, with Britain beginning an oil embargo on 17 December. America soon followed suit. Supporters of Rhodesian Prime Minister Ian Smith attacked three visiting MPs on 12 January 1966.

22 December saw a temporary maximum speed limit of 70mph on the UK’s motorways. The limit became permanent in 1967. On the same day, Prime Minister Harold Wilson shuffled the cabinet and made Roy Jenkins the Home Secretary and the new Minister of Transport was Barbara Castle. Both MPs would be big names within Labour for many years to come.

It will be no surprise to see the Beatles were Christmas number 1 yet again. This was the third time in a row, and they overtook Cliff Richard as the British act with the most chart-toppers – nine at this point. Since their last single Help!, the Fab Four had met with their old hero Elvis Presley, played their famous Shea Stadium concert, and finally slowed down, with the intention of devoting more time than usual to their new album. With LSD added to their drug intake, in addition to their pot smoking, Rubber Soul was a big step forward. The Beatles drew on their favourite musicians of the time, including Bob Dylan and the Byrds, to create a more introspective sound, combining pop, rock and folk with their most thoughtful, insightful lyrics to date. In addition to album highlights such as Drive My Car, Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown), In My Life and If I Needed Someone, the band also recorded two non-album tracks to release as a single on the same day. Because there were disagreements over which track to prioritise, Day Tripper/We Can Work It Out became the first ‘proper’ double-A-side single. Any followers of this blog will have seen we’ve had double-A-sides before, but in these instances, the second track listed was actually supposed to be a B-side, it’s just that demand resulted in the flip sides being promoted as strongly as the main track. That’s why you’ll see so many from Elvis earlier in the decade.

Day Tripper was recorded at Abbey Road on 16 October. The killer riff and majority of the song came from John Lennon, with Paul McCartney mainly helping with the verses. Seems to me this was Lennon’s attempt at coming up with a hook as good as the Rolling Stones’ (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction, and he came admirably close with this.

At the time, Lennon and McCartney were debating where to go next with their songwriting, having by and large exhausted the well of first-person love songs. One option, that fortunately didn’t last, was to write ‘comedy songs’. Not necessarily silly songs, but humourous tracks, occasionally with punchlines. Although the world can be glad they didn’t stick with that idea, to be fair, when the examples are Day Tripper, Drive My Car and Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown), maybe it wouldn’t have been such a bad thing after all.

Lyrically, Day Tripper was their first single to mention drugs, albeit hidden in a not-subtle-at-all manner behind travelling references. The female character, perhaps like the one in Ticket to Ride, is sexually confident (in addition to being a ‘weekend hippy’), with the line ‘she’s a big teaser’ famously a cleaner version of the original ‘she’s a prick teaser’.

Although cleaner and sounding more ‘pop’ than (I Can’t get No) Satisfaction, the stereo mix of Day Tripper is rather sloppy. Of course, in 1965 stereo was considered less important than mono, but that’s no excuse for the brief accidental erasing of the guitar and tambourine tracks at 1.50. Once heard it’s impossible to not notice. Thankfully the error was rectified when the track was included on the 1 compilation in 2000 by taking the sounds from elsewhere in the track. Yet another classic mid-60s track, Day Tripper could easily have been a number 1 on its own.

The origins of We Can Work It Out probably came from McCartney’s now-troubled relationship with Jane Asher. He struggled to finish the song and took it to Lennon, whose ‘Life is very short…’ section was the perfect counterpoint to McCartney’s work. I have to agree with Revolution in the Head author Ian MacDonald that this song doesn’t spotlight the difference between Lennon and McCartney’s songwriting as definitively as some suggest. You can hardly call McCartney’s ‘do I have to keep on talking till I can’t go on?’ optimistic, for example. Nonetheless, the instances of the duo working together to such an extent shrank rapidly after We Can Work It Out, and this song is a great example of how well the duo complimented each other.

It was recorded four days after Day Tripper, with the rhythm track laid down in two takes. However, a further 11 hours were spent on the recording – the longest they’d ever spent on one song. During the session, George Harrison came up with the idea for Lennon’s section to be recorded as a waltz. The final ingredient, and the best, was the overdubbing of Lennon on a harmonium. This added texture to the single that pointed the way towards the future of the Beatles.

McCartney, Harrison and Starr felt We Can Work It Out was the better track to feature as an A-side, but Lennon felt strongly they should opt for the harder Day Tripper. EMI even originaly announced We Can Work It Out as the Christmas single, but Lennon’s stubbornness resulted in both tracks being joint headliners. Airplay and point-of-sale requests proved Lennon wrong, but I’m on his side on this one. Having said that, for my money one of the best Beatles covers of all time has to be Stevie Wonder’s We Can Work It Out in 1970.

Although they were at number 1 for the ninth time in a row, alarm bells rang within the media that they were starting to lose some of their popularity because the single didn’t shoot straight to the top in the first week of release, which had become the norm for the Fab Four. Despite this, the record was their best seller since Can’t Buy Me Love in 1964.

Before the release, the band recorded promo films with Joe McGrath to avoid having to appear yet again on Top of the Pops etc. The highlight of these videos is Lennon making McCartney laugh while pulling faces on the harmonium. Four days before the single knocked The Carnival Is Over from number 1, the Beatles performed their final UK gigs at the Capitol in Cardiff.

Also in the news that Christmas and New Year… the oil platform Sea Gem collapsed in the North Sea on 27 December, killing 13 of the 32 men on board. 3 January saw the debut of classic children’s TV series Camberwick Green, shown on BBC One as part of the Watch with Mother strand. The following day, over 4,000 people attended the funeral of BBC broadcaster Richard Dimbleby, who had died on 22 December. Such a gathering for the death of any broadcaster seems hard to believe.

Written by: John Lennon & Paul McCartney

Producer: George Martin

Weeks at number 1: 5 (16 December 1965-19 January 1966)

Births:

Northern Irish composer Martin Galway – 3 January 

Deaths:

Broadcaster Richard Dimbleby – 22 December
Politician Edward Davey – 25 December 

200. The Beatles – Help! (1965)

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On 6 August 1965 Elizabeth Lane was appointed as the first female High Court judge. She was assigned to the Family Division. That same day the BBC decided to pull the docu-drama The War Game from transmission as part of its The Wednesday Play strand on BBC1. Directed and produced by Peter Watkins, it portrayed the aftermath of nucelar war. It was deemed too horrifying for public consumption. However, it was publicly screened and shown abroad, and won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature in 1966. It was eventually transmitted on 31 July 1985.

The day before, the Beatles scored their eighth number 1 with the title track to their new film and album, Help!

But a few months before all this, John Lennon and George Harrison had their first encounter with LSD. They were having dinner at the house of Harrison’s dentist John Riley, who spiked their drinks with the mind-altering, life-changing drug. Lennon was understandably terrified, but Harrison enjoyed the experience. They both began to use the drug more often. Later that summer, in fact while Help! was number 1, they dropped acid with Ringo Starr for the first time at Zsa Zsa Gabor’s house during an all-star gathering, featuring David Crosby and Jim McGuinn of the Byrds, who turned Harrison on to Indian music, folk singer Joan Baez and Peter Fonda, who inspired the Revolver (1966) track She Said She Said by freaking the band out, continually saying ‘I know what it’s like to be dead’ because he had once accidentally shot himself. Paul McCartney sat out the acid and was converted in 1966.

Nonetheless, LSD was to change all four Beatles over the next few years, and their music, sometimes beyond all recognition from their early years. Help! was the last single of theirs that sounded like their Merseybeat days, but the lyrics were the most direct they had yet attempted.

Lennon was, as he later stated, going through his ‘Fat Elvis’ stage. This rebellious art student with a tragic childhood was struggling to come to terms with the Fab Four’s stratospheric rise. Learning that the Fab Four’s second film was going to be called Help! rather than Eight Arms to Hold You, Lennon took the opportunity to write his most personal lyrics to date. These lyrics were about him and him only. According to McCartney, Lennon asked him to come up with the countermelody, which he did on 4 April at Lennon’s house. On 13 April they entered the studio to record the song, and did so in 12 takes. The following month they re-recorded the vocals for the film version, which marks the Beatles’ first appearance in the movie.

Lennon remained proud of Help! for the rest of his life, and he considered it one of his best songs. But he did express regret that the Beatles weren’t brave enough to record it as he’d originally intended, in a much slower style, to draw out the sorrow of the emotions expressed. Sonically, you could argue that Help! was a step back after Ticket to Ride, but the fact they went at it with breakneck speed and turned it into a straightforward pop song only adds tension between the music and the words and makes it all the more interesting. It’s a tremendous slice of 60s pop, once again showing the band towered above most of their competition. In a year of classic number 1s, Help! is one of the best. It was also the first time a pop song took a negative look at fame, and while you could argue that these type of songs are too self-obsessed and difficult to draw any sympathy from, the Beatles achieve it by going against the grain and wrapping it up in a pop parcel. Those backing vocals… sublime.

The single was released on 23 July, with the film following six days later. As I stated in my blog for Ticket to Ride, I prefer it to A Hard Day’s Night. It’s a riotous, technicolour piece of surreal fun. On the day the single knocked the Byrds’ Mr Tambourine Man from number 1, the album was released. Featuring original songs by Lennon, McCartney and Harrison on side one, the second side featured covers (for the last time on any Beatles album other than 1970 swansong Let It Be) and of course, Yesterday, featuring McCartney only alongside a string quartet. It remains the most covered song of all time.

Notable covers of Help! include Tina Turner’s in 1984 and Bananarama’s 1988 Comic Relief single alongside Dawn French, Jennifer Saunders and Kathy Burke, aka Lananeeneenoonoo.

Now the Beatles were hanging out with the counterculture elite, taking psychedelic drugs and listening to Bob Dylan and the Byrds, among others, their rebellious streaks were growing, along with their hair. Despite this, they were also now Members of the Order of the British Empire. That June, Harold Wilson had nominated the foursome, angering many conservative MBE recipients, some of whom returned theirs in protest.

Written by: John Lennon & Paul McCartney

Producer: George Martin

Weeks at number 1: 3 (5-25 August)

Births:

Children’s television presenter Mark Speight – 6 August 

193. The Beatles – Ticket to Ride (1965)

23 April saw the opening of the Pennine Way. The National Trail runs 267 miles from Edale in the Derbyshire Peak District, up to Kirk Yetholm in Scotland. Three days later, Manchester United won the Football League First Division title. In other football news, Liverpool won the FA Cup for the first time, defeating Leeds United 2-1 at Wembley Stadium on 1 May. Elsewhere, on 7 May the Rhodesian Front, led by Ian Smith, won a landslide victory in the general election in Rhodesia.

Meanwhile, the Beatles were at number 1 for the seventh time, with their most adventurous single to date.

In February, they had begun filming, and recording the soundtrack album, for their second movie (their first in colour), provisionally called Eight Arms to Hold You. Just as weird as the title was the film itself. Once again directed by Richard Lester, this was a more surreal, loose, knockabout comedy than A Hard Day’s Night (1964) and with a bigger budget, too. Intended as a spoof of spy films, it essentially became an excuse for the Fab Four to travel to exotic locations. The Beatles spent most of the time stoned out of their minds, and would often struggle to stop themselves laughing while filming. In some scenes, their eyes are bloodshot from all the smoking they indulged in. Lads.

Fortunately for everyone, the Beatles on marijuana didn’t result in self-indulgent dribble. It made for their best film. That’s nothing compared to the impact on their music, though.

Ticket to Ride was the first track worked on for their fifth album. In 1980, Lennon claimed in Playboy that the song was pretty much his own. He also proudly stated it invented heavy metal. The jury’s out on both, but it began one hell of a creative patch. None of their singles had sounded like this, musically or lyrically. He said Paul McCartney was only responsible for Ringo Starr’s drum sound, whereas McCartney later stated they wrote it together in three hours.

Even if Lennon was right, you can’t underestimate the drums on Ticket to Ride, so McCartney clearly made an important contribution. Making Starr play in such a stop-start fashion created an epic, proto-pyschedelic sound, which isn’t that far removed from the still-startling Tomorrow Never Knows, created a year later. George Harrison once said that the drums were also influenced by the equally important jagged guitar riff, which he claimed ownership of, having played it on his Rickenbacker. Whoever came up with what, this track was breaking new ground.

Although the Beatles were innovative with their songwriting from the start, those first few years were often full of basic lyrics about love. Not this time. The combination of an adoration of Bob Dylan and drugs made the words in Ticket to Ride more adult, oblique and interesting. A woman is leaving the narrator, that much we know. So far, so ‘blues’. But where to? Some suggest the woman has become a prostitute. McCartney once claimed she’s simply off to Ryde on the Isle of Wight. I find the former more likely. The prefix of ‘I think’ adds so much to the song, without explaining itself. And although the narrator isn’t sure exactly whether he’s upset or not, he says his baby definitely isn’t. It was rare at the time to allow a woman in a break-up to have the upper hand in a pop song.

Ticket to Ride was also a first for the Beatles for the way in which it was recorded. They were taking an increased interest in the way their songs sounded, and from now on they would tape rehearsals and concentrate on backing tracks, before overdubbing more instruments and the vocals.

Although most of the rest of the album it came from was fairly straightforward, Ticket to Ride marked the start of the band’s psychedelic period, and that’s easily my favourite era of my favourite band. The slow pace of the drumming, combined with the drone of the guitars, gives it an Indian feel. It seems this was a coincidence rather than by design, as it was later, during the making of the film, that Harrison became interested in Indian music (it seems the decidedly un-PC comedy Indian characters in Help! had their uses after all). The middle-eight was your more standard Beatles fare, but I can still find the switch back to the main riff spine-tingling, even after all these years. The ‘My baby don’t care’ refrain in the coda is a thrilling climax, with great guitar licks from McCartney.

Ticket to Ride enjoyed a lengthy (by 1965 standards – most number 1s only lasted a week) three-week stint at the top. It was their longest track to date, running for over three minutes. Singles were getting longer, hair was getting longer, things were getting weirder. They promoted the song on Top of the Pops, and a brief clip of the performance was also shown on Doctor Who in May, as part of the story The Chase.

The most famous performance of the song was in their second movie. By the time of its release it was known as Help!, and Ticket to Ride featured in a sequence in which the band learned to ski in the Austrian Alps while also avoiding the assassins attempting to steal Ringo’s ring. A highly influential part of the film, some say it was a big influence on the idea of music videos and eventually MTV.

As I mentioned in my blog for I Feel Fine though, the Beatles were already making promo films to save them having to be everywhere at once. That November, they made promos for their next single, Day Tripper/We Can Work It Out, and also made one for Ticket to Ride to feature on a festive edition of Top of the Pops. The foursome mimed in front of a backdrop of large tickets, with John, Paul and George sat in director’s chairs.

She Loves You is perhaps the greatest pop song of all time, but I think Ticket to Ride may be my favourite song of the early years of the Beatles. Time will never dull its magnificence.

Written by: John Lennon & Paul McCartney

Producer: George Martin

Weeks at number 1: 3 (22 April-12 May)

Births:

Actress Anna Chancellor – 27 April 
Television presenter Alice Beer – 1 May 
Wrestler Darren Matthews – 10 May

Deaths:

Welsh novelist Howard Spring – 3 May

183. The Beatles – I Feel Fine (1964)

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December, 1964. The 21st of that month saw MPs vote in favour of abolishing the death penalty, with the abolition likely to happen before the end of 1965. Two days later Richard Beeching announced he was to resign as Chairman of the British Railway Board. In his three years he had made enemies thanks to his closure of many small railways. 31 years in the future, a sitcom was made about his era, called Oh, Doctor Beeching! It was shit. Also on 23 December, the pirate radio station Wonderful Radio London began broadcasting from MV Galaxy off Frinton-on-Sea.

During this period, and well into January 1964, the Beatles had a long five-week run at the top with I Feel Fine. This made them the first act to score two concurrent Christmas number 1s. Not that having a number 1 at Christmas was a ‘thing’ back then. But still, it did become a tradition for the Fab Four to rule the airwaves at the end of the year.

1964 had been another phenomenal year for the Beatles. As well as spreading their fame across America, they began to take artistic leaps. This was in part fuelled by drugs. The band had got through long nights in Hamburg on various uppers before they were famous, so it’s not as if they were innocent before they met Bob Dylan that August. He introduced them to cannabis after famously mishearing I Want to Hold Your Hand and assuming they were already using it. The meeting affected everyone involved, with Dylan soon taking the decision to go electric, and Lennon in particular trying to ape Dylan’s songwriting with more introspective lyrics in a more nasally voice. Plus the peaked cap was a dead giveaway.

The band came off an exhausting tour of the US and went straight into the studio to record their fourth album Beatles for Sale. The combination of cannabis and being totally knackered had a big impact, resulting in a more melancholy, downbeat collection of songs. Originally they had planned for it to feature solely original material, but the well was running a little dry, understandably. They still managed to record a new single too, though.

I Feel Fine derived from Lennon’s Eight Days a Week, which was one of the more upbeat album originals. The riff appeared in the backgroud of that song, and had been inspired/stolen from Bobby Parker’s 1961 single Watch Your Step.

So far, so unoriginal. But the Beatles hit upon an introduction which is regarded, of course, as the first known deliberate recording of feedback. McCartney struck a note on his bass at one point, and Lennon’s guitar was leant against an amp, causing the sound to echo around the studio. They loved it, and asked George Martin if they could tack it onto the start of the song. Lennon would often boast about this for the rest of his life in interviews. From here on in, accidents and deliberate manipulation of sound would become more and more importand to the pot-smoking Fab Four.

Introduction aside, I Feel Fine may not be the most revolutionary of Beatles singles, but it’s pretty damn cool. The lyrics are no great shakes, with Lennon singing that, basically, him and his girl are in love. So, er, everything is good. But I love the slinky groove courtesy of Lennon and Harrison, and Starr’s drumming is excellent, and very deliberately reminiscent of the Latin sound of Ray Charles’ influential What’d I Say. Ringo, a poor drummer? He sounds bloody good to me here.

On the day of the single’s release (backed with McCartney’s also great She’s a Woman), they recorded two promotional videos with Joe McGrath. It’s rarely talked about for some reason, but the Beatles were one of the first acts to cotton on to music videos as a great way of promoting their singles when they were too busy to appear everywhere at once. The two videos are surreal, funny, cheap and charming, with Ringo on an exercise bike on the first one, and best of all, the band eating bags of chips in the second.

Following the success of The Beatles Christmas Show the previous year, Brian Epstein decided the group hadn’t worked hard enough this year, and had them work from Christmas Eve until 16 January at the Hammersmith Odeon on Another Beatles Christmas Show. This time the support came from acts including Freddie and the Dreamers, Sounds Incorporated, Elkie Brooks and the Yardbirds. The compere was Jimmy Savile.

On Boxing Day, police launched another missing persons investigation in Ancoats, Manchester, this time for ten-year-old Lesley Ann Downey.  She had been at a fairground on her own when she was approached by Ian Brady and Myra Hindley, who pretended to accidentally drop their shopping near her. She agreed to help them carry it to their car, then to their home. The next morning they buried her body in a shallow grave on Saddleworth Moor.

Written by: John Lennon & Paul McCartney

Producer: George Martin

Weeks at number 1: 5 (10 December 1964-13 January 1965)

Births:

Scottish footballer Gary McAllister – 25 December 
Portishead singer Beth Gibbons – 4 January
Pogues bassist Cait O’Riordan – 4 January
Actress Julia Ormond – 4 January
Footballer Vinnie Jones – 5 January
Actress Joely Richardson – 9 January 

Deaths:

Black activist Claudia Jones – 24 December

179. Roy Orbison – Oh, Pretty Woman (1964)

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The 1964 general election took place on 15 October, and after 13 years of Conservative rule, Labour were back in power with a slim majority of five seats, and Harold Wilson was the new prime minster. Two days later he announced his cabinet, which included James Callaghan, Denis Healey, Barbara Castle and Roy Jenkins. He also created the Welsh Office and made Jim Griffiths the first Secretary of State for Wales. The Conservatives had become mired in controversy following the Profumo affair, and Douglas-Home seemed decidedly old-fashioned and too posh against Wilson, who played up his working class image with a pipe and seemed hip by comparison, as the Beatles’ fame had helped begin the breaking down of social barriers.

Meanwhile, a suitably upbeat track was at number 1, courtesy of… Roy Orbison? Yes, the Big O was third-time lucky at number 1, and he finally got the girl on the classic Oh, Pretty Woman. The song was inspired by Orbison’s wayward wife Claudette, who was often his muse. Orbison and co-writer Bill Dees were working one day when she walked in to tell them she was going to Nashville. When Orbison asked if she needed any money, Dees interjected with ‘A pretty woman never needs any money’. As usual Orbison assigned Fred Foster for production, Bill Porter as the engineer, and assembled a top team of musicians, including Elvis Presley collaborator and number 1 artist Floyd Cramer on piano, plus three other guitarists in addition to himself on 12-string.

The second half of 1964’s number 1s are an embarrassment of riches as far as intros go, and Oh, Pretty Woman is among the best. Gone is the doom and gloom of It’s Over, replaced by that brilliant circular riff leading into the first ‘Pretty woman’. Anyone who’s ever been in awe of someone will identify with the lyrics, in which Orbison admires the pretty woman from a distance (I’d like to believe this was in a perfectly innocent way; I refuse to believe Orbison was a stalker). Anyone who was aware of his work must have assumed this was yet another great track by the balladeer in which the protagonist is doomed to be unlucky in love, but when he sings ‘What do I see?/Is she walkin’ back to me?/Yeah, she’s walkin’ back to me/Oh, oh, pretty woman.’, you almost want to punch the air for him in triumph. I love Orbison’s interjections too, namely ‘Mercy’, and a bit of growling thrown in for good measure. Way to go, Big O!

It was no mean feat for a US act to gain a UK number 1 in 1964, let alone two. Oh, Pretty Woman also went back to the top the following month for another week, toppling Sandie Shaw’s (There’s) Always Something There to Remind Me. Unfortunately, this was no happy ending for Orbison. That November, he and Claudette divorced over her affair, and although they remarried in December 1965, they were involved in a tragic accident in June 1966. The couple shared a love of motorbikes, and were riding home one day when a pickup truck pulled out. Claudette hit the door and died instantly. He threw himself into his music, co-writing the music for his debut film appearance, The Fastest Guitar Alive (1967). It had originally been planned as a Western, but became a comedy. Apparently Orbison’s role as a spy proved he wasn’t anywhere near as good an actor as he was a musician, and the film flopped, ending the movie enthusiast’s career in one stroke.

Orbison had done well to withstand changing musical fashions up to this point, but suffered badly with the blossoming of psychedelia. His life was upended once more after a gig in Bournemouth in September 1968, when he was told over the phone that his house had burned down, killing his two eldest sons. He sold the land to Johnny Cash, who planted an orchard where the house was stood.

The following year he married German teenager Barabra Jakobs, and in the 1970s they had two sons together, but his musical fortunes did not improve. It was a lost decade, commercially. other than a compilation of greatest hits making it to number 1 in the album charts, and featuring as the opening act for the Eagles on live dates, both in 1976.

The 80s opened promisingly for the Big O when Don McLean unexpectedly went to number 1 with his version of Crying. He and Emmylou Harris won a Grammy in 1981 for their duet That Lovin’ You Feelin’ Again, but it was a request from auteur filmmaker David Lynch that really reignited his career. Lynch was refused permission to use the track In Dreams in his disturbing film noir Blue Velvet (1986), but he went ahead anyway. Apparently while making the film he asked for the track to be played repeatedly to add to the disturbing atmosphere of the movie. Orbison was said to be shocked when he watched the film in the cinema, and it was only later that he appreciated his song’s place in it.

1987 was Orbison’s best year for decades. He released an album of re-recordings, won a Grammy with kd Lang for their new version of Crying, and he was initiated into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame by Bruce Springsteen, who had referenced his first number 1 in the memorable Thunder Road (‘Roy Orbison’s singing for the lonely’). In 1988 he began working with Electric Light Orchestra frontman Jeff Lynne on a new album. Lynne had just finished producing George Harrison’s Cloud Nine. The trio met up for a meal and an idea formed. They rang Bob Dylan, paid a visit to Tom Petty, and before you know it the supergroup the Traveling Wilburys were formed. That evening they wrote hit single Handle with Care.

Unlike a lot of comebacks by 60s legends, it helped that Orbison’s material was pretty good, particularly You Got It, which was to be the first single from his new album, Mystery Girl. Around this time he complained to Johnny Cash of chest pains, and said he should do something about his health. After years of getting nowhere, the world was at his feet again, and he didn’t want to stop in case his luck ran out yet again. On 6 December he spent the day flying model aeroplanes with his sons and had dinner at his mother’s house. He died of a heart attack later that day, aged only 52. The world had yet again been robbed of an astounding musical talent, blessed with an incredible voice and an uncanny knack of making misery sound compelling. Oh, Pretty Woman enjoyed a new lease of life thanks to the romantic comedy Pretty Woman in 1990. Roy himself is kind of doing the same, thanks to the ongoing tour in which he features as a hologram, backed by a full live orchestra. It’s good to know that his songs live on, but whether this is ethical or not is another matter.

Also in the news during Orbison’s final number 1 stint… Great Britain competed in the Olympics in Tokyo, Japan, where they won four gold, 12 silver and two bronze medals. The Games had been scheduled deliberately late in the year to avoid Tokyo’s midsummer heat.

Written by: Roy Orbison & Bill Dees

Producer: Fred Foster

Weeks at number 1: 3 (8-21 October, 12-18 November)

174. The Beatles – A Hard Day’s Night (1964)

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Ian MacDonald, in his excellent book Revolution in the Head (1994), stated that the opening chord of A Hard Day’s Night and the final chord of A Day in the Life, two of the most famous examples of such in popular music, bookend the peak creative years of the Beatles. While I don’t always agree with his opinions on the Beatles work, it’s a hell of a tome, and he is spot on in this judgement.

The spring of 1964 had seen the Beatles hurriedly filming their parts in their first feature film, still potentially called, appropriately enough, Beatlemania. The idea was to make a low-budget musical movie that saw the Fab Four pretty much being themselves, coping with their new-found fame, plus a surreal plot involving Paul’s grandfather, played by Wilfred Brambell from Steptoe and Son. Hopefully they could achieve this without falling into the same trap as Elvis, ie, getting stuck in an endless rut of ever-poorer cheap romantic comedies with substandard songs. By April they had recorded most of their third album, for the first time featuring nothing but Lennon and McCartney songs. There are several versions of how the title track came about, but they all state the inspiration came from Ringo Starr and his knack of saying things wrong but somehow making them sound poetic. Referring to the fact they’d often work through the night in the studio, Starr ended one session announcing how it’d been a hard day’s night. John Lennon liked the phrase so much he’d already included it in his first book earlier that year, In His Own Write. This passage came from the short story, Sad Michael:

‘There was no reason for Michael to be sad that morning, (the little wretch): everyone liked him, (the scab). He’d had a hard day’s night that day, for Michael was a Cocky Watchtower.’

The film’s producer Walter Shenson loved the phrase, and decided it would be the name of the film. He told Lennon he needed to write a song with the same name, and was startled to be given it the following day. Lennon and McCartney had already begun composing together less and were getting competitive about who got the A-sides on their singles, and Lennon may have been wanting the hit after McCartney had written previous single Can’t Buy Me Love. This period was Lennon’s most dominant within the Beatles, before McCartney considered himself de facto leader upon Epstein’s suicide, and Lennon was often too high to be bothered to compete so much. The group had the song polished in three hours flat on 16 April.

Knowing that A Hard Day’s Night would open the album as well as the film, the Beatles felt they had to come up with a good opening. What they probably didn’t realise is they would come up with one of the most memorable intros to a pop song ever. That famous chord has been subject to enormous amounts of literature over the years. It would seem it came about from all four band members, plus George Martin on a piano, striking their instruments at once. Such a great intro requires a great song, and the Beatles don’t disappoint there either. It’s one of their best singles of this period, and while the lyrics are still rather cliched, they’re a step up from some of their 1963 material, and anyway, it’s such a strong song, it’s effervescence masks any weak points. Naysayers of Starr’s drumming, begone – his performance propels this track brilliantly. Okay, we could have maybe done without the cowbell, though, and I like a good cowbell, when used right. Macca handles the high notes on the middle eight superbly (Lennon felt he couldn’t do these bits justice) and Harrison and Martin’s duet on guitar and piano is another highlight. Almost as brilliant as the song’s opening is the ending, which was Martin’s inspiration. He pointed out to the group that they were recording film music now, and should keep that in mind when considering the fit of each song into the film. Harrison’s chiming arpeggio is beautiful, and a great example of how many ideas the Beatles were now coming up with. Lesser bands would have built an entire song out of that arpeggio. The guitarist had been given a prototype 12-string Rickenbacker, and it’s ringing sound helps make that third album such a delight.

That summer was all about A Hard Day’s Night. The film was released in the UK on 6 July, and was a critical and commercial smash, cementing the Fab Four as loveable mop-tops, but also showcasing each one’s charisma too. The title track made for a perfect introduction to what followed, and it’s hard to hear the song without picturing the quartet running from screaming girls, with Harrison falling over at one point (this was a genuine accident that was left in the sequence).  Unusually, the US got to hear it first, as the soundtrack album was released on 26 June. The single and album were released simultaneously in the UK on 10 July. In August, both releases held the number 1 spot in both the singles and albums chart in the UK and US, a feat that had never before been achieved.

Also that summer, it was the end of an era when Winston Churchill retired from the House of Commons on 28 July at the ripe old age of 89. A week later, the first portable television sets went on sale to the public. 4 August also saw a classic single released, in a year full of them, when You Really Got Me by the Kinks went on sale. More on that in the near future.

Written by: John Lennon & Paul McCartney

Producer: George Martin

Weeks at number 1: 3 (23 July-12 August)

Births:

Actress Matilda Ziegler – 23 July 

Deaths:

Author Ian Fleming – 12 August