198. The Hollies – I’m Alive (1965)

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After 15 months behind bars, Great Train Robber Ronnie Biggs escaped from Wandsworth Prison on 8 July. He scaled a wall with a rope ladder and dropped into a waiting removal van. The canny criminal then fled to Brussels. Four days later, Secretary of State for Education and Science Tony Crosland issued Circular 10/65, which set into motion the abolition of grammar schools and secondary moderns. One of the best actions Labour took during the Wilson government.

Mancunian beat outfit the Hollies were one of the most popular acts of the era, ratcheting up many weeks in the top ten from 1963 onwards, but they only had one number 1 in the 1960s, toppling Elvis Presley a few weeks before these events took place.

The nucleus of the group, Allan Clarke and Graham Nash, were friends from primary school who, like so many others, were keen skiffle fans. They were also admirers of the Everly Brothers and began modelling themselves on them, becoming known as Ricky and Dane Young. Soon after they joined up with a local band called the Fourtones. In 1962 their guitarist Derek Quinn quit to join Freddie and the Dreamers, so Clarke and Nash also jumped ship. They teamed up with another Manchester band called the Deltas, who had just lost a member to the Mindbenders. The Deltas consisted of guitarist Vic Steele, bassist Eric Haydock and Don Rathbone on drums.

That December, they changed their name to the Hollies. Exactly why is unclear. It used to be said that Haydock came up with the name in relation to the festive season, but in 2009 Nash said it was a group decision and was influenced by Christmas and their mutual love of Buddy Holly.

The Hollies performed at the Cavern Club in Liverpool in January 1963, where they came to the attention of Parlophone assistant producer Ron Richards. He offered the band an audition, but Steele chose to quit as he didn’t want to turn professional. They replaced him with Tony Hicks, and they passed the audition, with Richards becoming their producer until well into the 70s. One of the songs they performed, a cover of the Coasters’ (Ain’t That) Just Like Me, became their debut single in May 1963. It did well, reaching number 25. After second single Searchin’, Rathbone chose to leave, and Hicks’ old bandmate Bobby Elliott became their new drummer.

In 1964 the Hollies went from strength to strength. Debut album Stay with the Hollies reached number two in the charts. And they scored hit after hit, most impressive of which was Just One Look. They stood out mainly due to the great harmonies of Clarke and Nash, and a tendency to pick strong songs to cover.  By September Clarke, Nash and Hicks were penning their own tunes and Richards agreed to let them record and release We’re Through as a single, which was another smash.

Some time in late 1964 or early 1965, Clint Ballard Jr approached the Hollies with a song he’d written especially for them. Ballard was a US songwriter who had discovered and managed the Kalin Twins, who had a UK number 1 with When in 1958. He had written Good Timin’ for Jimmy Jones, which went to the top in 1960. His timing with the Hollies was bad initially, as they passed on I’m Alive and it ended up in the hands of fellow Mancunians the Toggery Five. Perhaps they didn’t want to rely too much on covers, but they relented and recorded their own version in May and released it ASAP. And on 24 June the number 1 spot was finally theirs.

It’s all about the uplifting, anthemic chorus really, otherwise I’m not sure there’s much of a song there. But the harmonies are strong as ever and there’s some impressive drum fills too, so the group do the best they can with somewhat average material. I’ve already forgotten the verses but ‘I’m alive!’ is a nice earworm.

The Hollies battled with Presley for a few weeks, with Crying in the Chapel returning to number 1 after a week, but I’m Alive won the war and went back to the top for a further fortnight. It would be 23 years before an advertising campaign helped get the Hollies back to number 1 in 1988.

Written by: Clint Ballard Jr

Producer: Ron Richards

Weeks at number 1: 3 (24-30 June, 8-21 July)

Births:

Footballer Gary Pallister – 30 June
Footballer – 11 July
Politician David Miliband – 15 July
Dinah Rose, QC – 16 July
Academic Steve Webb – 18 July

120. Del Shannon – Runaway (1961)

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The often cool, cloudy summer of 1961 saw Barclays become the first bank in Britain with an in-house computing centre. The ‘No. 1 Computing Centre’ opened on 4 July in Drummond Street, London. The ‘white heat’ of technology was a few years away, but it was a start. Four days later, the Wimbledon women’s final was an all-British affair, and Angela Mortimer defeated Christine Truman.

At number 1 for a three-week period at that point, Del Shannon’s Runaway remains one of the most memorable rock’n’roll and pop songs of the early-60s. Key elements of the track, namely Shannon’s tortured falsetto and the sound of Max Crook’s Musitron, became very influential, which makes the singer-songwriter’s mental issues and eventual suicide all the more tragic.

Del Shannon was born Charles Weedon Westover in Grand Rapids, Michigan, in December 1934. Like many other future rock’n’rollers, he grew up playing the guitar and ukelele, and enjoyed country and western music by artists like Hank Williams. He entered the army in 1954, where he joined his first band, the Cool Flames. Upon his return to Michigan, he became a carpet salesman and truck driver for a furniture factory, and became rhythm guitarist in the Moonlight Ramblers, before replacing singer Doug DeMott, who was fired for drunken behaviour, in 1958. Westover changed his name to Charlie Johnson and renamed the group the Big Little Show Band. In 1959 the groups line-up was bolstered by the addition of keyboardist Max Crook. The keyboard wizard had been working on his own instrument, a primitive synthesiser he dubbed the Musitron. Crook had built this by modifying an old clavioline, adding television tubes, a reel-to-reel tape machine and parts from various household appliances. The group signed to Bigtop Records, but Johnson was urged to make another name change. ‘Del’ came from his favourite car, the Cadillac Coup de Ville, and he stole his surname from local wrestler Mark Shannon.

The origins of Runaway are unclear. Del Shannon once claimed it came about fairly instantly during a jam session on stage, but another version of events tells of unhappy initial recording sessions that resulted in Shannon and Crook being told to remake an earlier track known as Little Runaway, and to give the Musitron a place to shine during the new version.

Runaway starts off like any other rock’n’roll song, but the lyrics go deeper. Shannon’s sadness seems genuine, and his later reported problems suggest he was a tortured soul all his life, rather than one of the stereotypical handsome, clean-cut teen stars of the time. When he hits the falsetto on the chorus (Shannon claimed inspiration from Jimmy Jones, who had hit number 1 with Good Timin’ a year previous), he sounds genuinely pained, but it also adds energy to the song. And then when the Musitron takes over the instrumental break, we’re in uncharted territory. It may sound somewhat weedy now, but there’s an eeriness to it that resonates, as well as a sprightliness. A strange combination, but it’s definitely the highlight, and producers like Joe Meek were listening intently.

Del Shannon had a few more hits, usually containing the same bitter, melancholy lyrics, such as So Long, Baby. In 1963 he became the first American to cover the Beatles, when his version of their first UK number 1, From Me to You, charted before the original in the States. His fame started to slide, so he dipped his toes into other genres, releasing an album of Hank Williams covers, and he worked with Rolling Stones producer Andrew Loog Oldham on a psychedelic album, Home and Away, which Oldham wanted to become known as the UK’s answer to Pet Sounds, but it didn’t see a release in full until 1978. It does feature a pretty good, strung-out update of this track, in which Shannon sings in a lower register, but the problem with Runaway 67 for me is it doesn’t go far out enough, and where’s the Musitron solo? The 1968 follow-up, The Further Adventures of Charles Westover, was critically-acclaimed, but sold poorly. Alcoholism took its toll during the 70s, but he did work with Tom Petty, and in the 80s he re-recorded Runaway yet again, this time as the theme to the successful TV series Crime Story.

The nostalgia for 50s culture in the 80s did Shannon some good, but not enough, and perhaps he wanted to be considered a contemporary artist, not remembered as a singer from the past who was known for that one big hit.He began taking Prozac for depression, but it was not enough to save him from his personal demons. On 3 February, he performed at a memorial concert for Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson, and five days later, he committed suicide with a gunshot wound from his rifle. He was 55. It seems that Shannon may have seen his career as unfulfilled, but Runaway is still considered an exceptional rock’n’roll track, and his falsetto was a big influence on Barry Gibb of the Bee Gees. It’s a tragedy that he felt life hadn’t been kind enough to him.

Written by: Del Shannon & Max Crook

Producers: Harry Balk & Irving Micahnik

Weeks at number 1: 3 (29 June-19 July)

Births:

Diana Spencer, Princess of Wales – 1 July 
Welsh TV presenter Gareth Jones – 5 July 
Comedian Jeremy Hardy – 17 July 

103. Jimmy Jones – Good Timin’ (1960)

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One of my favourite songs by one of my favourite groups, Something Changed by Pulp is quite unlike most of the songs from their era of fame in the mid-1990s. It’s a sweet love song, that ponders on how lives can be changed forever by the timing of random events. ‘What’s this got to do with a number 1 single from 1960?’, you might ask. Well, Jimmy Jones’s Good Timin’ is similarly themed, although it fails to move me in the same way.

Good Timin’ was written by Fred Tobias and Clint Ballard Jr (later to write I’m Alive, a 1965 number 1 for The Hollies) as a follow-up to Jimmy Jones’ smash hit, Handy Man. Jones was born in Birmingham, Alabama in 1937. He was a tap dancer before joining the doo-wop group the Berliners in 1954, before they changed their name to the Sparks of Rhythm. The group recorded the song after Jones had left them in 1956. Now a solo artist, Jones decided to rework Handy Man with Otis Blackwell, who wrote two legendary UK number 1s, All Shook Up and Great Balls of Fire. Blackwell could do no wrong back then, and with his memorable whistle featuring on the track, it rocketed to the top 3 in the US and UK.

Good Timin’ has more energy than many of the number 1s of the 60s that precede it, but it’s a minor entry at best, and probably did so well off the back of Handy Man. Jones compares the timing of his relationship with that of the story of David and Goliath, pointing out that if it wasn’t for good timing, David wouldn’t have found the stone that he used to kill Goliath. Hmm, this seems a bit incongruous to me. I can’t help comparing it to Something Changed, which is unfair I know, but:

‘Do you believe that there’s someone up above/And does he have a timetable directing acts of love?’ is far more effective than:

‘If little, little David hadn’t grabbed that stone
Alyin’ there on the ground
Big Goliath might’ve stomped on him
Instead of the other way ’round’.

Ah well, Good Timin’ is more about the feel and sound I guess. Trouble is, that doesn’t do a lot for me either. Jones’s appeal lay in his falsetto, which was to be an influence on Del Shannon (of Runaway fame), but the way he sings ‘A tock, a tock, a tock, a tock’ in the chorus sounds ridiculous to these ears. Nonetheless, it was catchy enough to enjoy a three-week stint at the top.

Jones’s good timing started to run out after this song, with a few more hits troubling the charts before he faded into obscurity. He did however make the news when he sued Boy George, claiming he plagiarised Handy Man for Culture Club’s 1983 number 1 Karma Chameleon, changing ‘Come-a, come-a, come-a, come-a…’ to ‘Karma, karma, karma, karma…’. They settled out of court, with Boy George later claiming it took ’10 pence and an apple’ (according to New York Daily News‘ obituary on Jones). Jones was a fixture on the Northern Soul circuit for the last two decades of his life. He died in 2012, aged 82.

Written by: Fred Tobias & Clint Ballard Jr

Producer: Otis Blackwell

Weeks at number 1: 3 (7-27 July)

Births:

Actress Caroline Quentin – 11 July
Private Eye editor Ian Hislop – 13 July
Journalist Simon Heffer – 18 July