199. The Byrds – Mr Tambourine Man (1965)

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After failing to win the general election in 1964, Sir Alec Douglas-Home found himself on borrowed time as leader of the Conservatives, yet it was still a surprise when he announced his resignation on 22 July. During his time as party leader he had set up the means in which the next leader would be voted in, and so five days later Edward Heath won a secret ballot, defeating Enoch Powell and Reginald Maudling to become the new Leader of the Opposition. Heath was something different for the Conservatives, as it was unusual for their leader to be from the lower-middle class. As new Prime Minister Harold Wilson had deliberately played down his posh roots, and it had helped his public image no end, this was probably a canny move by the Conservatives.

While the Tories searched for their leader, former world light heavyweight boxing champion Freddie Mills was found in his car after being shot on 24 July. Mills died the next day. He had gone into light entertainment following his retirement from boxing and the news shocked the country. It is still not known exactly what happened, but the police ruled his death was a suicide. Despite being a family man, Mills was rumoured to be homosexual, and that combined with the fact he owed money to a crime syndicate, meant all kinds of rumours have circulated, including him being a serial killer, being in a relationship with former number 1 artist Michael Halliday, or that he was sexually involved with Ronnie Kray.

29 July saw the premiere of the Beatles new film, Help! (more on that next time), and three days later, cigarette advertising was banned from British television.

At number 1 during this fortnight was the Byrds’ interpretation of Bob Dylan’s Mr Tambourine Man. The Animals had kick-started folk rock when they covered The House of the Rising Sun, but this single took folk rock to a whole new level. The Byrds were also heavily influenced by the Beatles, who in turn would be influenced by them. Music was about to get a lot more colourful.

The origin of the Byrds began in 1964 when Jim McGuinn, Gene Clark and David Crosby first worked together. All three had previously been folk singers on the coffeehouse circuit in the early-1960s. McGuinn had also worked as a professional singwriter at Brill Building, and his tutor was Bobby Darin, a UK number 1 artist twice. By the time 1964 began, McGuinn had introduced Beatles songs to his repertoire. Clark also loved the moptops, and approached McGuinn after watching him perform at LA’s Troubadour folk club. They decided to become a Peter and Gordon-style duo and also wrote their own material. David Crosby in turn approached them after a concert, and he began harmonising with them on stage. They named themselves the Jet Set due to McGuinn’s love of aeronautics, and began recording demos.

By mid-1964 they had hired a drummer. Michael Clarke certainly looked the part, coming across like Brian Jones, but he could barely play the congas and didn’t own a drumkit, so he played cardboard boxes and a tamboruine to begin with. They hired session musicians to record a single, Please Let Me Love You, and briefly changed their name to the Beefeaters to cash in on the British Invasion, but it didn’t chart. That August their manager Jim Dickson had got hold of an acetate of Bob Dylan’s Mr Tambourine Man.

Dylan had written the track earlier that year and first recorded it during the sessions for Another Side of Bob Dylan. His version was four verses of beautiful, surrealistic imagery, with lyrics completely different to anything that had topped the charts before. Dylan was fast becoming as hip and influential as the Beatles, and of course Zimmerman and the Fab Four soon crossed paths.

Despite this, the Jet Set weren’t really sure what to make of it at first. They changed the time signature and cut right back to one verse, but still had doubts. In an effort to persuade them, Dickson brought Dylan along to watch them play his song. According to Johnny Rogan in his book The Byrds: Timeless Flight Revisited (1998), an uncharacteristically enthusiastic Dylan said to the Jet Set ‘Wow, man! You can dance to that!’. His postivity rubbed off on them.

Also that summer, they watched A Hard Day’s Night (1964) and decided they needed to have the same gear as John, Paul, George and Ringo. The most important purchase to contribute to their developing sound was McGuinn’s 12-string Rickenbacker. In October, Dickson hired mandolin player Chris Hillman to be their bassist. Hillman brought country influences into the group for the first time. On November 10, thanks to their manager’s connections, and a recommendation from jazz legend Miles Davis, the Jet Set prepared for take-off by signing with Columbia. Over Thanksgiving dinner the four-piece changed their name to the Byrds, another tribute to their beloved Beatles.

On 20 January 1965 the Byrds went to record Mr Tambourine Man in Columbia Studios, Hollywood as their debut single, but producer Terry Melcher wasn’t convinced they could pull it off. He decided to be cautious and instead hired the famous session musicians the Wrecking Crew. Other than McGuinn, Clark and Crosby’s vocals, McGuinn’s guitar is the only sound on the single that belongs to the band.

Not that it really matters, as this beautiful recording is all about the vocals and guitar anyway. The Byrds may have gutted the song’s lyrics, but they fleshed out the sound, adding dreamlike, colourful shading to the words. Dare I say these colours were psychedelic? Despite wearing their influences brazenly on their sleeves, the Byrds truly were something new for the pop scene at that point. They may have still been getting their act together musically, but they were certainly moving in the right circles, meaning half the battle was already won. They looked incredibly hip, and the first signs of the US counterculture became keen followers.

The Beatles’ Ticket to Ride had broken the mould for hinting at where pop lyrics could go, but by taking Dylan and melding his abstract writing to their sound, the Byrds were, appropriately, reaching new heights. Ironically, it knocked the Hollies’ I’m Alive from the top spot, meaning David Crosby toppled his future band member Graham Nash in the UK. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Their debut single went to number 1 on both sides of the Atlantic, and they convinced Melcher they were ready to record their debut album, which went by the same name. Listening to it this week, it sounds no different to the Wrecking Crew, so perhaps Melcher was worrying for nothing.  Having said that, their UK tour soon after was poorly-received. They certainly didn’t have the charisma of the Beatles or the Rolling Stones.

The Byrds were soon enveloping religious text, more Dylan songs, even Vera Lynn war anthems with their signature sound. Early the following year they released their groundbreaking single Eight Miles High, one of the first psychedelic classics. Ironically, prior to the release, Clark quit the band due to his fear of flying. He became a critically-acclaimed solo artist with songs including Dark of My Moon. but was troubled and unable to eclipse the Byrds, dying in 1991 from heart failure. Third album Fifth Dimension was released in the summer of 1966, and the band further explored jazz and raga influences. Just as psychedelia went overground, they began adding country to their sound in 1967, and So You Want to Be a Rock’n’Roll Star is believed to be a jibe at the Monkees. That same year saw Jim McGuinn find religion and change his name to Roger, and tensions erupt within the band. They sacked their management and during the sessions for what would become The Notorious Byrd Brothers (1968), Michael Clarke quit. McGuinn and Hillman were growing tired of Crosby’s out-there opinions that the press would gleefully report. They drove to his house, told him they were better off without him, and sacked him. Crosby went on to form one of rock’s first supergroups with Stephen Stills and Graham Nash, and later on Neil Young. Their first album in particular is a classic, and this lowly writer had the great pleasure of seeing Crosby, Stills & Nash perform at Glastonbury 2009.

Line-ups in the Byrds changed over and over from then on, most notably with the addition and departure of Gram Parsons, who helped the Byrds embrace country to a greater extent and resulted in their acclaimed Sweethearts of the Rodeo album (1968). However, the hippies were annoyed at the lack of psychedelia, and the country establishment were just as annoyed at this hippy band trying their hand at country.

Around this time, the producer of Mr Tambourine Man, Terry Melcher, had a fall-out with a struggling wannabe musician called Charles Manson. The fact the producer refused to work with such an eccentric enraged Manson, and ultimately led to to the murder of Sharon Tate and others at Melcher’s former home.

1969 was a more successful year for the Byrds. Ballad of Easy Rider became the theme to the classic movie Easy Rider (1969) (albeit a solo McGuinn version) and the excellent Wasn’t Born to Follow also featured on the soundtrack. But the 70s saw the law of dimishing returns come into effect, and by 1972, McGuinn broke up the band for a lucrative reunion of the original five-piece. Predictably enough, this didn’t last long as egos had only grown over the years. Several versions of the Byrds came and went until the original five reformed for the last time to tie-in with being entered into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The reunion was timely, as Clark died soon after. and Clarke also died two years later of liver disease.

Despite Crosby and HIllman being publicly in favour of some kind of Byrds reunion, McGuinn always refuses. Earlier in 2018, however, he and Hillman celebrated the 50th anniversary of Sweetheart of the Rodeo with a tour. For as long as these three are still alive, there will always be an audience for a Byrds reunion, though, and money talks, so I wouldn’t rule it out.

Written by: Bob Dylan

Producer: Terry Melcher

Weeks at number 1: 2 (22 July-4 August)

Births:

Author JK Rowling – 31 July
Director Sam Mendes – 1 August 

Deaths:

Boxer Freddie Mills – 25 July 

171. Roy Orbison – It’s Over (1964)

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The pop world had changed massively since Roy Orbison’s first number 1, Only the Lonely (Know How I Feel), in October 1960. Nonetheless, during this period Orbison had plenty of hits, including Running Scared and Crying in 1961 (Don McLean’s cover of the latter went to the top of the charts in June 1980). It was while he toured Australia in 1962 that he was first referred to as ‘The Big O’ by a DJ, and in 1963 he developed the onstage persona that was as idiosyncratic as his voice. While touring with the Beatles he left his thick glasses on a plane and was forced to wear his prescription Wayfarer sunglasses instead. Not only did this help such a shy performer cope with his stagefright, they also made him cool – a word that was unlikely to have been associated with him before then.

The tour with the Beatles was supposed to be a joint headliner, with Orbison replacing injured guitarist Duane Eddy. The Big O was bemused by the level of fame the Beatles were enjoying, and allegedly asked with some degree of annoyance ‘What’s a Beatle anyway?’, at which point John Lennon tapped him on the shoulder and said ‘I am’. On the opening night of the tour, probably in a bid to get his bit over with, Orbison volunteered to go on first, and the Fab Four were left awestruck at his ability to work a crowd by barely moving throughout his set. For a band who would do their utmost to win over their audiences with charm, this must have been quite a shock to them. The two acts became firm friends, and of course Harrison would later join Orbison in the Travelling Wilburys.

Orbison’s constant touring took its toll on his private life, unfortunately, and his wife Claudette, who he adored and paid tribute to in a song named after her (the Everly Brothers had took it to number 1 in 1957), got sick of being alone and began an affair with the man who had built their home. He was also now working with a new co-writer, as Joe Melson was frustrated at not becoming a star in his own right. Orbison’s new collaborator was Bill Dees, and it was very likely that they had Claudette’s waywardness in mind as they began writing It’s Over, considering they were divorced by the end of the year.

Of course, so much of Orbison’s work concerned heartbreak, but It’s Over is the most stark example of such in his oeuvre that I’m aware of. It’s certainly the most successful, and I doubt there could be more bleak song in his back catalogue. Over a heavy, ominous drumbeat, Orbison brings on the misery like a gravedigger shovelling soil onto a coffin. ‘It breaks your heart in two, to know she’s been untrue’… if there’s any doubt that Orbison is in as much pain as the lyrics suggest, just listen to that final 20 seconds in which he sings ‘It’s over’ with emotion so raw it’s almost hard to listen to.

That a song so dark and operatic could make it to the top of the pop charts, at any point in time, let alone during peak Beatlemania (the film A Hard Day’s Night had just been released) is astounding. Elvis was the only other US act that could get a sniff of a number 1 spot at this point. Yet Orbison still had another number 1 in store for him before the end of 1964.

Tip: If It’s Over doesn’t grab you first time around (and it’s not exactly catchy, so don’t be surprised), listen again, preferably through earphones. It worked for me.

Written by: Roy Orbison & Bill Dees

Producer: Wesley Rose

Weeks at number 1: 2 (25 June-8 July)

Births:

Novelist Joanne Harris – 3 July 
Comedian Robert Newman – 7 July 

143. Elvis Presley with the Jordanaires – Return to Sender (1962)

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If there’s an inch of snow on the ground these days, the British papers are full of ‘BIG FREEZE’ headlines. But have a read about the winter of 1962/63, and you soon realise most of these wintry spells are nothing compared to what people went through back then. The UK was hit with bitterly cold conditions on 22 December, and it remained so right through until March 1963. In fact, 6 March was the first morning of the year without a frost anywhere in Britain. Snow lay on the ground in the south of England for 62 consecutive days – since then, the record has been 10 in a row in 1987. That Christmas and New Year saw many towns and villages cut off from the outside world, yet steam trains were able to battle on through the snow, and many schools remained open.

Elvis Presley bagged his only Christmas number 1 at this time with one of his more famous singles, Return to Sender. Otis Blackwell, one of his best songwriters, co-wrote the song with Winfield Scott. This was the first time they had worked together, and they had been tasked with writing songs for the King’s next film, Girls! Girls! Girls! (1962). Unusually, they were given song titles and told to come up with tunes around them, (no wonder so many Elvis film songs were crap if this was the setup) but Return to Sender was entirely original, and impressed the filmmakers so much, they went ahead and included it in the film’s nightclub scene.

Opening with a quick blast of sax from Boots Randolph, Return to Sender is one of Presley’s better number 1s from this period. Although the tune itself isn’t too startling, Elvis sounds suitably pissed off, almost spitting the words out at times. He just can’t believe that girl refuses to read his letters, to the extent he’s going to hand deliver it, and give her one hell of a bollocking, it seems. The Jordanaires also sound livelier than usual, and complement Elvis to great effect.

However, Elvis’s best songwriters were starting to desert him now, and the public were finally starting to tire of him. I’m relieved to see it would be a further ten months before he hit the top again. After four number 1s per year in 1961 and 1962, this was quite a drop in fortunes, but the Beatles were now making headway, and soon the charts would be rammed with similar acts. With a few exceptions, 62 had been an average year, but my musical ‘year zero’ is next.

Written by: Winfield Scott & Otis Blackwell

Producers: Steve Sholes & Chet Atkins

Weeks at number 1: 3 (13 December 1962-2 January 1963)

Births:

Actor Ralph Fiennes – 22 December 

Deaths:

Director Charles Laughton – 15 December 

133. Elvis Presley with the Jordanaires – Rock-A-Hula Baby (“Twist” Special)/Can’t Help Falling in Love (1962)

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So far, the 1960s had seen mixed fortunes for the King. When he was good, he was great (see (Marie’s the Name) His Latest Flame), and when he was bad, he was execrable (see Wooden Heart). He wasn’t always guaranteed to top the charts in the US anymore, but record buyers in the UK were still sending nearly every release to number 1. The problem, in part, was the fact he was stuck on the movie treadmill, forever churning out sugary musicals that also demanded soundtrack albums. In 1960 he tried to wrestle control, starring in the straight drama Flaming Star. He insisted on cutting back on the songs, and it featured only two. However, it performed poorly, and when his next drama, Wild in the Country (1961) did the same, it was back to the light-hearted, song-packed romances that audiences loved.

Blue Hawaii was the first, and most famous, of three Elvis films shot on the island. He starred as former soldier Chadwick Gates (!), and his mother was played by Angela Lansbury. No, Lansbury hasn’t always been old – she was only ten years older than he was, in reality. He arrived in Hawaii to record the soundtrack and shoot location filming in March 1961, and both Rock-A-Hula Baby (“Twist” Special) and Can’t Help Falling in Love were considered the strongest material to release together as singles before the film’s release in late 1961. Eventually they toppled Cliff Richard and the Shadows’ The Young Ones after its six-week run at number 1 on 22 February. This single is perhaps the finest example of just how all-over-the-place quality control had become in the Presley camp.

Rock-A-Hula Baby (“Twist” Special) was written by Ben Weisman, Fred Wise and Delores Fuller. Weisman was nicknamed ‘The Mad Professor’ by Elvis, and held the record for having had the most number of songs recorded by Presley – 57 in total. Fuller was once the girlfriend of cult low-budget film director Ed Wood, and had starred in his 1953 docu-drama Glen or Glenda and this was her first published song. Weisman was keen to combine Hawaiian music with the dance craze ‘the twist’, born via Chubby Checker’s cover of The Twist in 1960.

Hats off to Elvis again for trying different styles, but this is one of his poorer singles. I quite like the initial couplet ‘The way she moves her hips to her finger tips/I feel I’m heaven bound’, but it’s downhill from there. It probably works as a scene in Blue Hawaii (I’m not going to watch it to find out, I doubt I’ll ever watch an Elvis musical), but as a single, it’s ill-judged at best. Unlike the flip side.

Can’t Help Falling in Love fully deserves its classic status, and is Elvis’s finest ballad. It came from the songwriting team of Hugo Peretti, Luigi Creatore and George David Weiss, who were responsible for the 1961 English-language version of Mbube for the Tokens, which they renamed The Lion Sleeps Tonight. 20 years later Tight Fit went to number 1 with their version. Can’t Help Falling in Love wasn’t an entirely original track either – the melody was taken from the 1784 French song Plaisir D’Amour by Jean-Paul Egide-Martini (who was German, despite his name). Apparently, Elvis’s associates and film producers disliked the demo, but he insisted on recording it. Yet another sad example of the fact that Elvis may have been better off without some of his team and allowed to make his own decisions more often.

Elvis purrs the lyrics beautifully, the production is intimate and, well, pretty much perfect. The Jordanaires, often overused, make for the perfect vocal accompaniment. Hal Blaine is the drummer here, and the session drummer went on to become one of the most in-demand session drummers, playing with the Beach Boys and Simon and Garfunkel, among others. The lyrics hint that Elvis is perhaps involved in an illicit relationship (‘Shall I stay?/Would it be a sin?’), but ultimately it doesn’t matter – he’s surrendering to his emotions (‘Take my whole life too’… ‘Some things are meant to be’).     However, in Blue Hawaii, the song features in a scene in which he presents his love interest’s grandmother with a music box for her birthday. This version starts with the music box as the backing, before transforming to the single version.

It soon became apparent this was one of Elvis’s best songs, and Can’t Help Falling in Love became the finale of his live shows in the late 60s and 70s. It lost some of its magic though, as it was played faster than the intimate original recording. It came the last song Elvis performed on TV, closing his 1977 special, Elvis in Concert, and the last song he ever performed, at Market Square Arena in Indianapolis on 26 June that year. Less than two months later, he was dead.

In 1993 it topped the charts once more, via a rubbish reggae-lite cover by UB40. More on that another time. For me, the best use of this song came at the hands of Jason Pierce’s space-rockers Spiritualized. He added it to the end of the title track to his strung-out free-jazz, gospel and psychedelic masterpiece, Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space in 1997, mixing it in amongst Pachalbel’s Canon and lyrics of obsessed love, to astounding affect. Unfortunately, the Presley estate objected (perhaps due to the drug overtones of the album?) and blocked the use after the earliest pressings. Pierce was forced to re-record the track, adding his own lyrics, which he now claims to prefer (there’s not a lot in it, but I prefer the original). However, in 2009 Pierce planned to release a deluxe edition of the album, and permission was granted to return the ‘Elvis mix’ to the start of the album, providing he rename the track Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space (I Can’t Help Falling in Love). This seems a bit rich, considering Peretti, Creatore and Weiss borrowed so much of the melody in the first place, but that’s the music business for you.

Elvis’s tenth stint at number 1 lasted a month. On 26 February, the Irish Republican Army officially called off its Border Campaign in Northern Ireland, calling to a halt its attempt to halt British rule and unite Ireland. On 15 March, the Orpington by-election marked the start of the Liberal Party’s revival when Eric Lubbock caused an upset by defeating expected winner, Conservative Peter Goldman.

Written by:

Rock-A-Hula Baby (“Twist” Special): Ben Weisman, Fred Wise & Dolores Fuller/Can’t Help Falling in Love: Hugo Peretti, Luigi Creatore & George David Weiss

Producer: Steve Sholes

Weeks at number 1: 4 (22 February-21 March)

Births:

Novelist John Lanchester – 25 February 
Comic book artist Simon Bisley – 4 March 
Altered Images singer Clare Grogan – 17 March