277. Jane Birkin and Serge Gainsbourg – Je t’aime… moi non plus (1969)

The all-new, spectacular seven-sided 50p coin was introduced on 14 October. The replacement for the ten-shilling note was given a rather mixed reaction from the Great British public, with many complaining that it was too similar to the 10p coin. It wasn’t, but there was enough shock of the new to contend with that week I guess, as we’ll find out shortly.

Opinion polls were suggesting that, come the next general election, the Conservatives, led by Edward Heath and ahead by up to 24 points, would easily trounce Howard Wilson’s Labour.

And ruling the charts was the muckiest, filthiest number 1 by far at that point. Je t’aime… moi non plus by French Lothario Serge Gainsbourg and his lover, English actress Jane Birkin shocked our stuffy nation and was banned by the BBC… but as is often the case with such singles, whatever the decade, its notoriety only helped its sales. It was also the first foreign language chart-topper.

One of the most important figures in 20th-century French culture, Serge Gainsbourg had been born Lucien Ginsburg in Paris on 2 April, 1928. He was the son of Jewish Russian migrants who had fled to the city after the Russian Revolution in 1917. His father Joseph taught Lucien and his twin sister Liliane to play the piano.

The young Ginsberg was deeply affected by Germany’s occupation of France during World War 2, and it would come out in his work in later years. Travelling under false papers, the Ginsburgs escaped to Limoges, which although safer, was still a dangerous place for French Jews.

Nonetheless they survived, and when the war is over, he found work teaching music and drawing in a school set up by rabbis for the orphaned children of murdered deportees. The stories he heard stayed with the horrified teacher for the rest of his life.

By the time he was in his early twenties, he changed his name to Serge Gainsbourg. He liked his new forename because it reminded him of his Russian heritage (and Lucien made him sound like a hairdresser’s assistant), and Gainsbourg in homage to the English painter Thomas Gainsborough.

Fast forward to the late 50s, and Gainsbourg, now married, was a shy, struggling songwriter, who felt the songs he was starting to develop would be too provocative for chansons. Singer Michèle Arnaud took him under her wing and offered to record his songs, and buoyed by her patronage, he released his debut album Du chant à la une!… in 1958.

Gainsbourg was too obsessed with sex and death to be famous just yet. But he became friends with legendary Belgian songwriter Jacques Brel and French singer Juliette Greco, with who he collaborated over the next few years.

In 1965 Gainsbourg, now on to his second marriage, finally found some mainstream success by writing Luxembourg’ entry into the Eurovision Song Contest. Poupée de cire, poupée de son, sung by French teen France Gall, won the competition. However, his next song for her, Les Sucettes, caused uproar. Turns out it wasn’t about lollipops, which is what the title translates into, but oral sex. Gainsbourg, who had once been ridiculed by audiences and critics for his looks, likely enjoyed pissing people off, and despite Gall’s career suffering for a while afterwards, Gainsbourg was onto something.

In 1967 Gainsbourg, divorced for the second time, began an affair with actress, singer and iconic sex symbol Brigitte Bardot. She asked him to write the most beautiful love song he could imagine, and he went home that night and wrote two of his most famous tracks. Bonnie and Clyde, which was released as a duet in 1968, and Je t’aime… moi non plus.

The title for the latter translates as ‘I love you… me neither’, which was inspired by a Salvador Dali quote: ‘Picasso is Spanish, me too. Picasso is a genius, me too. Picasso is a communist, me neither’. Gainsbourg would over the years describe it as ‘the ultimate love song’, or an ‘anti-fuck song’.

The secret lovers recorded the first version, and indulged in heavy petting when doing so, according to engineer William Flageollet. When word got out, Bardot’s husband was furious and Bardot pleaded with Gainsbourg not to release the recording. I looked forward to hearing this version, eventually released in the 80s, purely for research purposes and not for finding Bardot gorgeous you understand… it’s actually a disappointment. The arrangement is different, with more strings, and less organ, but the main problem is, Bardot’s performance is more reserved than Jane Birkin’s.

Birkin was born on 14 December 1946 in Marylebone, London. Her mother Judy Campbell was a stage actress and her father David Birkin a World War 2 spy. Her brother Andrew is a successful screenwriter and director. Birkin was raised in Chelsea, and aged 17 she met her future husband John Barry, the James Bond composer and former collaborator with Adam Faith on his number 1s What Do You Want? (1959) and Poor Me (1960). They married in 1965, and she became famous herself through her roles in counterculture films Blowup and Kaleidoscope, both in 1966, and Wonderwall in 1968. That year, she and Barry divorced.

Birkin auditioned for a role in Slogan in France in 1968. She became the female lead and co-starred with Gainsbourg, and together they performed the film’s theme song, La Chanson de Slogan. They fell in love, and what better way to commemorate than by recording a sexually explicit song? Was this also a slap in the face to Bardot? Possibly, but Birkin was definitely keen. She had heard the original and found it ‘hot’ and insisted they bring it out as a single, because she was jealous of his ex-lover.

With the organ taking centre stage and more prominent bass under a new arrangement by Arthur Greenslade, Gainsbourg and Birkin went in to record their vocals in a studio in Marble Arch. He told her to sing it an octave higher than Bardot, so she would sound ‘like a little boy’.

A typically shocking thing for Gainsbourg to say, but the shift in pitch between their two vocals does add to the contrast and highly charged erotic content. It’s difficult to imagine now just how shocking Je t’aime… moi non plus must have sounded 50 years ago, and its been used, covered and spoofed so many times, but if you overlook the slightly cheesy organ (so to speak), the explicit performance from Birkin is still pretty out there.

Put it this way, I couldn’t and didn’t play it out loud in front of the kids like I easily could any other number 1 before it. It brought to mind L’il Louis & the World’s 1989 house classic French Kiss. Featuring similarly orgasmic moans, it once came on at random in my kitchen and my eldest, then around five, asked why the lady was groaning. At a loss for an answer, I said she had a headache.

There are rumours out there that Birkin and Gainsbourg were actually having sex while recording this. I don’t believe that personally, but it makes for a good story. Birkin certainly puts in an effective performance though, totally letting go and making Gainsbourg’s cool detached replies in the chorus all the more effective too.

There’s a great translation and essay on the meaning of the lyrics of Je t’aime… moi non plus here, which proves it’s more than just two horny people getting it on. Some people consider Birkin is wildly in love with Gainsbourg in the song, and his ‘me neither’ means it’s purely about sex for him. But the site considers the possibility that Birkin doesn’t love Gainsbourg, that she’s just into the sex, and he knows this full well, hence his reply.

It also suggests that, and the rest of the vocals back this up, that if it is just about sex, than Gainsbourg is making sure she has the best time he can give her. Several times he says ‘Je vail et je viens/Entre ten reins/Et je me retiens’, which translates as ‘I come and I go/Inside of you/And I hold myself back’. The song’s ending is a literal climax, with Birkin demanding ‘Non! Maintenant! Viens!’ (No! Come now!)… Stirring stuff, really, and more sophisticated than most record buyers would have realised, especially in 1969. And I’d bet that the average British man at the time would have been astounded at the idea of such selfless sex.

It’s another quantum leap in pop music. We’ve gone from songs about love to seven inches of the hard stuff just like that, and although it proved too shocking to open the floodgates to many similar songs at the time, pop was never the same again. Je t’aime… moi non plus may have been filth, but it’s deep too.

Je t’aime… moi non plus sent shockwaves through the charts. In addition to being banned on many radio stations, Fontana, the label that released it, withdrew it from sale when it reached number two. Fortunately, Gainsbourg arranged a deal with Major Minor Records, and the combination of two different versions only helped its sales. An unusual occurrence in the charts, and I’m not sure if it’s happened before or since.

It wasn’t just deemed offensive in the UK though. It was banned from the radio in Spain, Sweden, Brazil and Italy. It was denounced by the Vatican. In France, it couldn’t be played before 11pm. And yet there have been countless covers and spoof versions over the years, by Giorgio Moroder & Donna Summer, Malcolm McLaren and Pet Shop Boys. The two versions I want to hear the most have to be by Frankie Howerd & June Whitfield and René & Yvette from ‘Allo! ‘Allo!. Just imagine…

Two years after the success of their sole number 1 single (and the album of the same name), Gainsbourg released the concept album Histoire de Melody Nelson, about a middle-aged man accidentally crashing his car into a teenage cyclist, and subsequently falling in love with her. Despite, or maybe because of its Lolita-esque story, it’s considered a landmark in French pop. Birkin provided the vocals for Melody and also featured on the provocative artwork.

Gainsbourg shocked once more in 1975 when his experiences of World War 2 inspired the album Rock Around the Bunker, featuring satirically light-hearted songs such as Nazi Rock. His last ‘rock’ album came out the following year, L’Homme à tête de chou (Cabbage-Head Man, which was his nickname).

Gainsbourg moved into reggae, and recorded Aux Armes et cætera, a version of La Marsellaise, with Rita Marley and Sly and Robbie. Many were appalled, and he received death threats. Bob Marley was also disgusted with him for persuading his wife to sing dirty lyrics on his 1981 album, Mauvaises nouvelles des étoiles.

Birkin gave birth to their daughter Charlotte, now a successful actress and singer herself. Following a break in acting, She returned in 1973 to play Brigitte Bardot’s lover in Don Juan, or If Don Juan Were a Woman. Gainsbourg must have loved that. In 1976 she starred in his film, Je t’aime moi non plus, which was banned in the UK. But after 13 years their turbulent, intense relationship finally ended in 1980.

It could be argued that he never really recovered, despite almost immediately beginning a relationship with Caroline Paulus, aka Bambou, which lasted until his death. He recorded two funk and hip-hop-influenced albums, 1984’s Love on the Beat and You’re Under Arrest in 1987, in which much of his wit and playfulness seemed to have been reduced to seeing how far he could go to shock people, even recording the track Lemon Incest with Charlotte, only 13 at the time.

Gainsbourg was becoming increasingly dishevelled, and became best known for his drunken, shambolic chat show appearances. Famously, in 1986 he interrupted a nervous Michel Drucker to announce on his chat show that he wanted ‘to fuck’ an understandably startled Whitney Houston, sat next to him on the sofa. On another show he shouted ‘You’re nothing but a filthy whore, a filthy fucking whore’ at Catherine Ringer, an actress who had also appeared in porn. Understandably, he didn’t appear on TV much after this.

In 1988 while judging a film festival he began to tell the audience an obscene story about Brigitte Bardot and a champagne bottle, which ended in him staggering offstage and collapsing in a seat.

On 2 March 1991 Serge Gainsbourg died of a heart attack, aged 62. Since then most of those final years have been forgotten and he is rightly considered a legendary figure in France for his intelligence and thought-provoking music and film work.

Jane Birkin continued to make music throughout the 70s and 80s, including the albums Ex fan des Sixties in 1978 and Baby Alone in Babylone in 1983. Her film work included in the adaptations of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express (1978) and Evil Under the Sun (1982), and she co-starred with John Gielgud in Leave All Fair (1985).

Despite finding love again with director Jacques Dollon, with whom she had her third child, Lou in 1982, The Observer reported in 2007 that they separated in the 90s because he ‘could not compete with her grief for Gainsbourg’. In 1998 she starred in Merchant-Ivory’s A Soldier’s Daughter Never Cries and saw out the 90s with the album À la légère in 1999.

The 00s saw her awarded an OBE in 2001, plenty more acting work, and three albums – Rendez-Vous (2004), Fictions (2006) and Enfants d’Hiver (2008). Her last album to date, 2017’s Birkin/Gainsbourg: Le Symphonique, featured orchestral reworking of their collaborations. A year previous, she starred in the Academy Award-nominated short film La femme et le TGV, which she announced would be her final acting work.

A multi-talented, multi-award-winning humanitarian and strong role model, Jane Birkin is now 72 and though her career has have slowed down, she has a fine body of work to look back on, and it would be unfair if she was mainly remembered for her number 1 duet – as great as it is.

Written by: Serge Gainsbourg

Producer: Jack Baverstock

Weeks at number 1: 1 (11-17 October)

Births:

Actor Dominic West – 15 October

265. The Move – Blackberry Way (1969)

Before writing a bona-fide Christmas classic for his group Wizzard in 1973, Brummie songwriter Roy Wood specialised in quirky psychedelic pop with the Move, and helped to found the Electric Light Orchestra along the way.

In 1965, members of several groups in the Birmingham music scene plotted to form a new band, that they hoped would emulate the success of the Who. Making the move (hence the new group’s name) that December were singer Carl Wayne, bassist Chris ‘Ace’ Kefford and drummer Bev Bevan from Carl Wayne and the Vikings. Guitarist and songwriter Wood transferred from the Nightriders, later to become the Idle Race. In January 1966, the same month as their live debut, they were joined by guitarist Trevor Burton from Danny King & the Mayfair Set.

In these early days, the Move played mainly covers by bands including the Byrds, plus Motown and rock’n’roll. Although Wayne was the lead singer, each member got a chance to sing at the gigs.

Soon, Moody Blues manager Tony Secunda signed them up and helped them get a weekly residency at London’s Marquee Club. Secunda was integral in helping the Move stand out. He encouraged them to perform dressed as gangsters, and would get Wayne to take an axe to television sets on stage. When they signed their contract with producer Denny Cordell, he arranged for them to sign it on the back of topless model Liz Wilson. It was also Secunda that encouraged Wood to begin coming up with original material.

All Secunda’s unique, somewhat sexist methods paid off when the Move’s debut single, Night of Fear, written by Wood but with a steal from Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, stormed to number two in January 1967. Wood soon found his form, and the next three singles are all classic LSD-fried upbeat pop, showcasing Wood’s very British humour and laden with catchy hooks. I Can Hear the Grass Grow, later covered by the Fall, reached number five in March.

Flowers in the Rain reached number two in August, and is now their most famous tune due to it being the first pop song ever played on Radio 1 a month later. It helps that it’s also bloody good, particularly because of its distinctive woodwind and string arrangement courtesy of Cordell’s assistant Tony Visconti. It did however create a headache for Wood. Secunda’s decision to issue a postcard featuring a cartoon of Prime Minister Harold Wilson in bed with his secretary Marcia Williams resulted in the Move losing a libel case and Wood relinquishing all royalties to charities of Wilson’s choice.

Fire Brigade, released in January 1968, was their best yet, and was the first single to feature Wood on lead vocal. What a bizarre, life-affirming, under-rated classic. A patchy debut LP, Move, was released at the same time. Soon after, Kefford was sacked due to drug issues. Their rut continued when next single Wild Tiger Woman failed to chart. Fortunately, Blackberry Way wasn’t far behind.

Released in November that year, and perhaps as a result of the mood in the band, Blackberry Way was darker than their usual fare. Inspired by Penny Lane, I consider this a sequel to Flowers in the Rain, where the ecstatic trip has turned sour. The queasy backing, thanks in part to producer Jimmy Miller, conjures up the confusion and fear of a bad trip. There’s no fun to be had in the rain this time. The singer is broken-hearted on Blackberry Way, wondering where he goes from here. However, the chorus is more upbeat and defiant, and the singer reckons she is sure to ‘want me back another day’. Whilst it’s not the best single by the Move, Blackberry Way is a great example of late-60s psychedelic pop, and it signified that the hippy dream of the past few years was turning sour.

Playing keyboards on Blackberry Way was Richard Tandy, who was later part of the Electric Light Orchestra. He briefly joined the Move when Burton injured himself, but Burton was growing increasingly disenchanted with the pop that Wood was writing, and once Blackberry Way became number one, he knew they would continue in that vein, so he left in February 1969 after an on-stage scrap with Bevan.

Among the replacements considered for Burton was Jeff Lynne, who was still hopeful for further success with the Idle Race, and even Hank Marvin of the Shadows. Eventually Rick Price took up the bass on a non-contractual basis.

October 1969 saw the Move’s only US tour dates, supporting the Stooges. Soon after they began being booked for cabaret-style venues, which signalled they were losing their way. Wood began working up the concept of the Electric Light Orchestra. He was become increasingly keen on bringing classical and exotic instruments into pop songs, and ELO would give him the chance to experiment away from the Move. A month before the release of their second album Shazam in February 1970, an increasingly frustrated Wayne quit the Move. He had wanted Kefford and Burton back in the fold while Wood worked on ELO, but he, Bevan and Price refused to go along with the plan. In 2000, Wayne replaced Allan Clarke as lead singer of the Hollies, until his death from cancer in 2004.

Wood approached Lynne once more, only this time he floated the idea for the Electric Light Orchestra too, and Lynne was in as second guitarist and pianist. They began work on what was supposed to be the final Move album, Looking On, released in December 1970, which featured hit single Brontosaurus and the stomping Feel Too Good as its closer. One of the songs intended as a B-side, the cello-laden epic 10538 Overture, became the first ELO single instead.

Wood, Lynne and Bevan signed a new deal with Harvest Records, who insisted on one final album by the Move as well as two ELO albums, so the trio found themselves in the unusual position of recording two separate LPs by two different bands simultaneously. The Move’s final album, Message from the Country, was released in June 1971, and The Electric Light Orchestra came six months later. Soon after the Move’s ‘farewell single’ California Man, was released. By the time we hear from Wood in this blog again, his time in ELO was over, and Lynne was in charge.

There was a one-off reunion of the Move in 1981 when Wood, Bevan and Kefford took part in a charity fundraiser. The name has been used by Bevan in several different line-ups to this day, something that Wood resents.

Written by: Roy Wood

Producer: Jimmy Miller

Weeks at number 1: 1 (5-11 February)

239. The Foundations – Baby Now That I’ve Found You (1967)

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Following on from BBC Radio’s restructuring into four new national stations, their first regional one, BBC Radio Leicester, began on 8 November. Ten days later, the movement of animals in England and Wales was restricted due to an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease. But the big news of that fortnight came a day later when Prime Minister Harold Wilson devalued the pound. His claim that doing so would not affect ‘the pound in your pocket’ was ridiculed and did Wilson’s standing lasting damage.

During this fortnight in mid-November, multi-racial soul group the Foundations had a surprise number 1 with Motown-style debut single Baby Now That I’ve Found You.

Stories of the groups origins are conflicted, but the most well-known one is that the Foundations had formed in January through advertisements in Melody Maker. This ethnically rich eight-piece originally consisted of singer Clem Curtis, lead guitarist Alan Warner, flautist/saxophonist Pat Burke, tenor saxophonist Mike Elliott, trombonist Eric Allan Dale, keyboardist Tony Gomez, bassist Peter Macbeth and drummer Tim Harris.

The Foundations ran, rehearsed and performed in the Butterfly Club in Bayswater, London. Their practice sessions would take place in the basement, which is how they got their name. Times were hard and they could barely afford to eat, let alone pay the rent. Fortune smiled on them when record dealer Barry Class attended one night and was so impressed he became their manager. He arranged a meeting with Tony Macauley, who was working for Pye Records as a producer.

Macauley had written Baby Now That I’ve Found You with John MacLeod, and was looking for a British soul act he could take under his wing to become the UK’s answer to the Four Tops. High expectations indeed, but the record was released that summer, and flopped.

However, their luck was in that autumn, thanks to Radio 1. The BBC, now back to dominating the airwaves thanks to the demise of pirate radio, were keen to play songs that stations like Radio London had ignored in an effort to differentiate themselves. Baby Now That I’ve Found You – a sunny, harmless slice of uptempo pop, fitted the bill perfectly, and became a runaway success. From just another group struggling to get by, the Foundations were now at number 1.

I love a bit of soul music, and this made for an interesting diversion after lots of ballads and flower power anthems, but it doesn’t compare with Motown at its best. The lyrics don’t really match the uplifting mood – not that they necessarily should, but they’re also bog-standard ‘I love you, please don’t leave me’-type words, which rather give the impression of a quickly tossed-off single. So, not a lot of depth, but it’s a nice enough way to pass a few minutes, and not every song needs to be clever, does it?

Not only did Baby Now That I’ve Found You prove that the Brits could do soul, and that multi-ethnic groups could exist, they nearly beat the Americans at their own game, with the single reaching 11 in the US. Debut album From the Foundations was rushed together, but there were problems ahead. Follow-up single Back On My Feet Again only reached number 18 in the UK, an tensions were rising between the group and Macauley, who only wanted them recording songs he had written, including their B-sides. The Foundations understandably weren’t best pleased, and felt he was trying too hard to soften their sound.

Matters came to a head when Curtis quit, as he felt some of the members were happy to take the easier road and rest on their laurels. Having befriended Sammy Davis Jnr, he was encouraged to go solo in the US, He was replaced by Colin Young, and Elliott quit too, so the group were now a seven-piece.

Soon after, they had their most famous hit with Build Me Up Buttercup, written by Macauley and Manfred Mann singer Mike d’Abo. Although it stalled at number two here, it reached number 1 in the US, and is a better track then Baby Now That I’ve Found You. Back in the public eye, they entered talks to star in their own Monkees-style TV series but things started to go wrong once more. Macbeth left and was replaced by Steve Bingham, and then the band split from their management in 1969 to join the Temptations on a tour that proved disastrous. After yet more bass player changes, Macauley left Pye Records, depriving the group of their hitmaker. With soul being replaced by funk in popularity, the Foundations split in late 1970.

Curtis returned to the Uk in the mid-70s and revived the band, but Young had the same idea, leading to two versions on the road playing the same material. Following a lawsuit, Curtis got the name and Young’s band became the New Foundations.

Fast forward to 1998 and Build Me Up Buttercup became popular once more thanks to its appearance at the end of the comedy There’s Something About Mary, which led to Young reviving yet another version of the band. He left soon after and was replaced by Hue Montgomery. Curtis died in 2017 from lung cancer, aged 76.

Macauley went on to write many hits along the lines of Baby Now That I’ve Found You, high in catchiness but light in substance. In fact, he and MacLeod feature in the next blog…

Written by: Tony Macauley & John MacLeod

Producer: Tony Macauley

Weeks at number 1: 2 (8-21 November) 

Births:

Actress Letitia Dean – 14 November 
Footballer Wayne Harrison – 15 November
Comedian Dom Joly – 15 November

Deaths:

Pianist Harriet Cohen – 13 November 

238. Bee Gees – Massachusetts (1967)

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The Bee Gees. Through thick and thin, in hard times and great times, the iconic Gibb brothers, Barry, Robin and Maurice sang together for 45 years (minor the occasional split) until Maurice’s untimely death in 2003, creating some of the bestselling songs of all time for themselves and other high-profile artists, and yet, seem to me to be strangely underrated. They had five number 1s as Bee Gees, spanning three decades, and this is the story of their early years and first number 1, Massachusetts.

The Gibb brothers were born on the Isle of Man to English parents. Barry was born 1 September 1946, and twins Robin and Maurice on 22 December 1949. They moved back to their father Hugh’s home town of Chorlton-cum-Hardy in Manchester in 1955, where they formed skiffle and rock’n’roll group the Rattlesnakes. The group featured Barry on vocals and guitar, Robin and Maurice on vocals too, and friends Paul frost on drums and Kenny Horrocks on tea-chest bass.

The story goes that some time in December 1957, the Gibbs were on their way to a cinema to mime to a record, as other children had in previous weeks, but the record broke on the way, and so they sang together live and it went down a storm. Whether it’s true or not, it makes for a good tale. The following year the Rattlesnakes disbanded when Frost and Horrocks left, so the Gibbs formed Wee Johny Hayes and the Blue Cats, with Barry as Hayes.

That August the Gibb family emigrated to Queensland, Australia. The trio began singing to earn pocket money. In 1960, speedway promoter and driver Bill Goode dug those harmonies and hired the Gibbs to entertain the crowd at Redcliffe Speedway. During intervals they would be driven around the track and as they sang the audience would throw them money on to the track. Goode introduced them to Brisbane DJ Bill Gates. It was Gates, who, noting that he, Goode and Barry shared the same initials, named the boys the BGs.

Soon they were appearing on Australian television, and in 1962 they supported Chubby Checker. In 1963 the family were living in Sydney, when the star Cal Joye helped get them a record deal with Festival Records under the name the Bee Gees, and they began releasing singles under this name while Barry would also write for other artists. They had a minor hit in 1965 with Wine and Women, which led to their debut album, The Bee Gees Sing and Play 14 Barry Gibb Songs. Talk about ‘it does exactly what it says on the tin’…

The following year they came very close to being dropped when they met their new manager and producer Nat Kipner, who signed them to Spin Records. By getting unlimited access to a recording studio, the Bee Gees skills rapidly grew, but they became increasingly frustrated, and having paid close attention to the UK music scene, they made the decision to return to the UK in January 1967. Before they left, tapes had been sent over to the Beatles manager Brian Epstein, who had passed ther tapes over Robert Stigwood, who had previously worked with Joe Meek and John Leyton, and recently joined NEMS. Ironically, it was on the journey to Blighty that they discovered their last Australian single Spicks and Specks, off an album of the same name, had been named Best Single of the Year by the influential music newspapaer Go-Set.

In February the Bee Gees signed with Stigwood and began work on their first international album, with fellow Australians Colin Petersen and Vince Melouney joining them on drums and lead guitar respectively. Inspired by the Aberfan mining tragedy, they released New York Mining Disaster 1941 as a single, and confusing some DJs who thought this was a new single by the Beatles thanks to some lovely harmonies and considerable charm, the single garnered some attention. They followed it up with To Love Somebody. Originally written for Otis Redding, it didn’t even reach the top 40, yet is now a pop standard. Their third album, The Bee Gees 1st, was released in July. Fitting in perfectly with the sound of the Summer of Love, the gentle psychedia made it into the top ten albums.

While promoting the album in New York, Scott McKenzie was at number 1 in the UK with the mournful hippie folk of San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair). Barry, Robin and Maurice wrote (The Lights Went Out in) Massachusetts as their reply. They knew nothing about Massachusetts, but they liked the sound of the name, and while strumming away to a tune not entirely dissimilar from McKenzie’s song, they decided that the song would specifically reference San Francisco, with the subject of their song having travelled there like so many others. So many others, in fact, that ‘the lights all went out in Massachusetts’

It’s a quirky little song, but lovely with it. Although deliberately similar to McKenzie’s ode to the Moneterey Rock Festival, it outdoes it, and that’s largely due to those gorgeous, idiosyncratic harmonies. Robin’s plaintive lead also works a treat. It’s hard to say from the sparse lyrics whether the Bee Gees were attacking the hippy movement, paying tribute to it, or just taking the piss somewhat, but it has rightly taken up place as another one of those patchouli-flecked psych-folk ballads that summed up the abiding spirit of 1967. Nicely understated and a sign of a future force to be reckoned with.

So it had been a wise move by the Gibbs to release it ASAP, rather than wait until they had finished their next album Horizontal, released in 1968. They were even considering not releasing it at all and were keen on giving it to Australian folk stars the Seekers. Massachusetts helped make Bee Gees one of the brightest new acts of the era, and of course, there was much more to come.

Massachusetts spent for weeks at number 1 that autumn. On 11 October, Prime Minister Harold Wilson won a libel action against Birmingham psych-rockers the Move after they depicted him nude in promotional material for their record Flowers in the Rain. A fortnight later, Parliament passed The Abortion Act, legalising abortion on a number of grounds from the following year onwards.

2 November saw Winnie Ewing of the Scottish National Party win the Hamilton by-election. Having formed in 1934, this was the first time the party had won a by-election. The single’s final week at number 1 was marred by two tragic accidents., with Iberia Airlines Flight 062 from Málaga Airport, Spain hitting Blackdown Hill in West Sussex. All 37 on board were killed. The very next day, an express train from Hastings to London derailed in the Hither Green rail crash, which killed 49 people. Amongst the passengers was Robin Gibb, who recalled in The Mail on Sunday on 1 November 2009, ‘Luckily I didn’t get injured. I remember sitting at the side of the carriage, watching the rain pour down, fireworks go off and blue lights of the ambulances whirring. It was like something out of a Spielberg film.’

Written by: Barry Gibb, Robin Gibb & Maurice Gibb

Producer: Robert Stigwood & Bee Gees

Weeks at number 1: 4 (11 October-7 November) 

Births:

Presenter Davina McCall – 16 October
Novelist Monica Ali – 20 October 
Footballer Paul Ince – 21 October 
Politician Douglas Alexander – 26 October
Bush singer Gavin Rossdale – 30 October

232. Sandie Shaw – Puppet on a String (1967)

sandie-shawMay 1967 was exceptionally wet with frequent thunderstorms. On the second day of the month, Prime Minister Harold Wilson announced that the UK would be applying for EEC membership. On the sixth, Manchester United won the Football League First Division title. Five days later, the UK and Republic of Ireland officially applied for the EEC.

The month before, the UK became the first winners of the Eurovision Song Contest with an English language track. Sandie Shaw, a former number 1 artist twice with (There’s) Always Something There to Remind Me in 1964 and Long Live Love in 1965, was victorious in Vienna, Austria with Puppet on a String.

Since Long Live Love the hits had continued for Shaw for a time, including Message Understood and Tomorrow, but steadily the sales numbers began to drop and by 1967 she was only scraping into the top 40.

A large factor in this may have been the fact she was involved in a divorce scandal. She had been involved in an affair with Douglas Murdoch, a TV executive on Ready, Steady, Go! Her management decided a move into cabaret, to present a more family-friendly image, may save her. Shaw disagreed and thought it would destroy all her credibility, but she still found herself performing five songs on The Rolf Harris Show, which the public would then vote on to choose the track she would perform in Vienna.

To her horror, Puppet on a String was a runaway success. It nearly didn’t happen though, as the BBC were horrifed by the sex scandal (the judge called her a ‘spoiled child’) and were ready to drop her right up until the day before the show.The barefooted performer, in her 1991 autobiography The World at my Feet (clever title), she said, ‘I hated it from the very first oompah to the final bang on the big bass drum. I was instinctively repelled by its sexist drivel and cuckoo-clock tune.’

 

Shaw has it spot on. What a painful listen. The oompah element is bad enough, but is at a manic speed that makes her wailing sound like a needy woman on the edge of a nervous breakdown. It’s sadly ironic she ended up singing such pathetic lyrics, as she was clearly a strong woman, which was probably sadly unusual in the pop world at the time. The song’s protaganist is likely being used and seems okay with that, despite the ups and downs.

It’s bad enough being subjected to it once. Now, imagine you’re Shaw, a once-respectable star, reduced over the years to performing it over and over. It could send anyone insane. The fact the song will have reminded her of a tough time in her personal life will have only made her hate Puppet on a String all the more.

However, her management were wise to enter the song in Eurovision, as this is precisely the kind of crap its audience lapped up back then, and she was popular in the continent. It won by a huge margin, made her the first female artist to have three number 1s, and was the biggest selling single of the year in Germany. It’s also believed to be the biggest-selling Eurovision song of all time, and potentially the biggest-selling single by a British female singer ever. Let that sink in for a moment.

Her career revitalised, the Dagenham singer was a sensation once more. In 1968 she began her own fashion label and the BBC soon forgot their issues with her, giving her a TV series, The Sandie Shaw Supplement. Her last hit single was Monsieur Dupont in 1969, which reached number six. Also that year she released an album of covers of the hip rock stars of the time. Reviewing the Situation featured her version of Led Zeppelin’s Your Time Is Gonna Come, and ended with a decent version of the Rolling Stones’ Sympathy for the Devil. The decade came to a close with her single Heaven Knows I’m Missing Him Now – the inspiration for the Smiths’ Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now in 1984.

When her contract with Pye Records ran out in 1972 she chose to retire from music. She had branched out into acting and writing children’s books, but eventually found herself working as a waitress in a London restaurant. She released two singles in 1977 and the following year became a Buddhist, which she still is. She also divorced her first husband, fashion designer Jeff Banks in 1978.

In 1982 she married Nik Powell, co-founder of the Virgin Group with Richard Branson, and she was introudced to the new wave of pop stars, working with BEF (later to become Heaven 17) and duetting with Chrissie Hynde at a Pretenders concert. Her first album in years, Choose Life, was released in 1983.

Later that year she received a letter from ‘two incurable Sandie Shaw fans’. Morrissey and Johnny Marr, singer and guitarist in indie darlings and 60s-pop-star-worshippers the Smiths, told her that, ‘the Sandie Shaw legend isn’t over yet. There is more to be done.’ Powell knew Geoff Travis, owner of the Smiths’ label Rough Trade, and soon she was recording her version of their debut single Hand in Glove. Morrissey was obsessed with the fact their first release hadn’t been a hit, and hoped Shaw would rectify this. Although it only reached number 27, she was back on Top of the Pops, miming with Marr, Andy Rourke and Mike Joyce backing her. Two years later she was touring universities with a backing band made up of members of new wave group JoBoxers.

Her life took another turn in the 90s, when she divorced again and met third husband Tony Bedford. She trained to be a psychotherapist and together in 1997 they opened the Arts Clinic with the aim of providing help for those in creative industries. She also battled for control of her archive recordings and made new versions of her 60s and 80s recordings.In the 00s Shaw seems to have come to terms with Puppet on a String, announcing she was proud of her Eurovision past. To celebrate her 60th birthday in 2007 she released a remake, Puppet’s Got a Brand New String, produced by 80s pop star Howard Jones. She wisely ditched the oompah stylings of the original, though.

In 2010 she recorded the theme to the comedy film Made in Dagenham, which dramatised the Ford sewing machinists strike of 1968. Shaw had actually worked there before she was famous. Lyrics came from left-wing singer-songwriter Billy Bragg.

Sandie Shaw was made an MBE in 2017. Now 71, she is well respected as a key figure of the 60s pop scene and a formidable personality who refused to tow the line in a male-dominated industry. We can easily forgive her for Puppet on a String.

Written by: Bill Martin & Phil Coulter

Producer: Ken Woodman

Weeks at number 1: 3 (27 April-17 May) 

Births:

Footballer David Rocastle – 2 May
Journalist Jon Ronson – 10 May

Deaths:

Poet John Masefield – 12 May 

227. Tom Jones – Green, Green Grass of Home (1966)

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December 1966: Harry Roberts, John Whitney and John Duddy are sentenced to life for killing three policemen in August on 12 December. Prime Minister Harold Wilson and Rhodesian Prime Minister Ian Smith were in the news throughout the month as they attempted to negotiate the whole independence saga. On 20 December Wilson withdrew all offers and announced that he will only consider independence when a black majority government is installed in Rhodesia. Two days later, a steadfast Smith announced he already considered the country a republic. New Year’s Eve saw thieves steal millions of pounds worth of paintings from Dulwich Art Gallery in London.

And so, after such a stellar year of chart action, we’re back at the Christmas number 1. For the first time since 1962, it isn’t the Beatles, who were working on Strawberry Fields Forever. Holding court as the top of the pops for the whole month, and most of January, was 1966’s best-selling single – Tom Jones’s cover of Green, Green Grass of Home.

Since his last number 1, the storming It’s Not Unusual in 1965, Jones’s popularity had slipped somewhat. Granted, his theme to What’s New Pussycat?, by Bacharach and David, did well, but his theme to the James Bond movie Thunderball wasn’t so popular. His manager Gordon Mills decided a new approach was needed, and steered Jones towards using that deep voice to become a light entertainment-style crooner.

Green, Green Grass of Home had been written by Claude ‘Curly’ Puttman, Jr, and was first made popular by flamboyant country star Porter Wagoner in 1965. Later that year, controversial rock’n’roller Jerry Lee Lewis recorded a version for his album Country Songs for Country Folks, and it was this version that made Tom Jones decide to give it a crack himself. His producer Peter Sullivan weren’t so sure – country wasn’t what they had in mind for Jones, so Les Reed, who had written It’s Not Unusual, arranged the track and took it in an easy listening direction.

Jones recalled in an interview for The Mail on Sunday in 2011 that Lewis was on a UK tour just before the single’s release, and met with Jones. He was bowled over by this new pop version, and told Jones he had a hit on his hands.

It’s an odd one, really. Green, Green Grass of Home is still considered one of Tom Jones’s best songs, and yet it leaves me rather cold. The arrangement is rather dated now, particularly when compared to the previous number 1, Good Vibrations. I think the Beach Boys classic would have made for a much more appropriate song to round the year off. But there’s no accounting for taste. Which leads me onto my next point.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m against the death penalty, but it’s hard to feel sorry for the singer once you know the twist – that he’s behind bars and reminiscing on his hometown before he is hanged. The likelihood here is that this man has done something terrible. An odd choice for Christmas number 1, all in all. I hate the ‘Mary/cherries’ rhyme as well.

Green, Green Grass of Home is a sign of what happens to the charts in 1967. After all this energy, vigour and innovation, things go somewhat downhill. 1967 was a great year for albums, and I used to think that once we got full-blown into the ‘flower power’ era, there would be some wonderful single number 1s. There’s far fewer than I hoped, and more often than not, the fashion sways back towards MOR.

Also that year, Tom Jones performed in Las Vegas for the first time. Like his friend Elvis Presley in the 1970s, his recording output suffered as his live act grew more flamboyant, and it was here he cultivated the sweaty, open shirt image that would make him a figure of fun over the years. There were still hits from time to time though, such as Delilah in 1968. From 1969 to 1971 he presented his own variety show on ITV called This Is Tom Jones. The year it ended he recorded one of my favourite Jones tracks, She’s a Lady, written by Paul Anka and later used to great effect in Terry Gilliam’s adaptation of Hunter S Thompson’s Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas (1998).

By the mid-70s his career had declined and he tried to get more film and TV work, but by the early 80s he was recording country material that failed to chart. The first of his many comebacks came in 1987 when A Boy From Nowhere made it to number two. Then the following year he teamed up with Art of Noise for a smash-hit cover of Prince’s Kiss. Unfortunately, someone missed the point of the original, and changed the lyrics from ‘Women, not girls rule my world’ to ‘Women and girls rule my world’, which sounds a bit seedy to me.

In 1992 he kickstarted the idea of ‘legends’ appearing at Glastonbury Festival, and had cameos on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and The Simpsons the following year. Also in 1993 he was back in the charts with If I Only Knew. I personally find this track hilarious for its opening, in which Jones’s bellow is used to headache-inducing levels. It’s hard not to enjoy it though. 1996 saw him cameo in Tim Burton’s sci-fi comedy movie Mars Attacks. He rounded off the millenium with Reload, an enormously successful collection of covers featuring the stars of the time.

It was around then I got a bit sick of Tom Jones. That bellow was everywhere, from the dodgy duet It’s Cold Outside with Matthews (which takes on new levels of meaning when you read he allegedly banged her over the mixing desk during the recording) to the especially irritating version of Mama Told Me Not to Come with Stereophonics. The biggest hit, Sex Bomb, with Mousse T, long outstayed its welcome. But the Queen loved him and he was given an OBE that year, before being knighted in 2006.

He’s never really gone away since the success of Reload, and is now a national treasure. There’s one more number 1 with which he’s involved, from 2009, so I’ll return to his story then.

Next time then, 1967. Until 18 January though, Green, Green Grass of Home reigned at number 1. So what was happening in the news then? On New Year’s Day, the Queen decided to commemorate England’s World Cup achievement by making manager Alf Ramsey a Sir, and also awarded captain Bobby Moore with an OBE.

3 January saw stop-motion children’s TV favourite Trumpton begin on BBC One, and four days later another classic TV series began on BBC Two – The Forstyte Saga.

On 4 January, motorboat racer Donald Campbell was tragically killed while trying to break his own water speed record attempt on Coniston Water in the Lake District. Footage shows his Bluebird K7 and smash into the water. His body wasn’t found until 2001.

And in the world of politics, the UK entered the first round of negotiations for European Economic Community Membership on 15 January. Three days later, the flamboyant Jeremy Thorpe replaced Jo Grimond as leader of the Liberal Party. He was a popular leader and increased the party’s voting stastics, but controversy would end his leadership early.

Written by: Curly Putman

Producer: Peter Sullivan

Weeks at number 1: 7 (1 December 1966-18 January 1967) *BEST-SELLING SINGLE OF THE YEAR*

Births:

Footballer Dennis Wise – 16 December
Rugby player Martin Bayfield – 21 December
Rugby league player Martin Offiah – 29 December
Comedian Mark Lamarr – 7 January
Actress Emily Watson – 14 January

Deaths:

Land and water speed record breaker Donald Campbell – 4 January 

 

218. The Kinks – Sunny Afternoon (1966)

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11 July saw the FIFA World Cup begin in England with the home team drawing against Uruguay 0-0. However by the time the 20 July came, they were top of their group, with wins against Mexico and France, both 2-0 up. And the best was yet to come.

The day after the tournament began, the Rhodesia saga continued with Zambia threatening to leave the Commonwealth over British peace overtures. On 14 July, Gwynfor Evans was elected as Member of Parliament for Carmarthen, becoming the first ever Plaid Cymru MP. Two days later, Prime Minister Harold Wilson flew to Moscow in order to begin peace negotiations over the Vietnam War, but the Soviet Government refused to help. And although life in the UK that summer is remembered as being a prosperous, positive time, 20 July saw the start of a six-month wage and price freeze.

That day marked the end of the Kinks’ third and final stint at number 1, with the classic Sunny Afternoon. Since Tired of Waiting for You had ruled the charts, the group had released singles of varying quality. The best of the bunch was the droning, proto-psychedelic See My Friends in the summer of 1965. Released four months before Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown), it is considered to be one of the first pop songs to incorporate an Indian raga sound.

Tensions were emerging within the group in a very public way, and it wasn’t just Ray and Dave Davies that were known to scrap. Drummer Mick Avory and Dave fought on stage that May in Cardiff, with Avory fleeing the scene after knocking out Davies with his hi-hat stand, in fear he had murdered the guitarist. The drummer later told the police it was just a new part of their live show where the Kinks would throw instruments at each other.

The foursome’s chances of making an impact in the US were given a severe knockback when the American Federation of Musicians refused to allow the band permits for the next four years. Ray Davies believed this to have stemmed from him throwing a punch at a TV crew member who had launched into a tirade of anti-British comments at him. But it wasn’t just in the US that Davies was treated with condescension. He was treated with disdain by upper-class fellow guests at a luxury resort. Those guests helped bring about a marked shift in the direction of the Kinks, and the one which marked out Davies as one of the country’s greatest songwriters.

Well Respected Man, released that September, was the first instance of the band taking inspiration from music hall for their sound, with Davies satirising the British class system. From here on in, nobody could write barbed lyrics about life in England quite like Ray Davies. In February 1966 they released one of their best singles, Dedicated Follower of Fashion, taking aim at London’s fashion scene. The power-chord rock of You Really Got Me that originally brought them fame must have seemed a long time ago.

Despite their developing sound bringing them success, Ray Davies was not a happy man. The squabbling within the group and pressures of recording and touring had brought about a breakdown while working on their third album in late-1965, The Kink Kontroversy. Before writing Sunny Afternoon, Davies had bought a white, upright piano but in his depressed state he was struggling to come up with any new songs. He would listen to Frank Sinatra and Bob Dylan over and over for inspiration, but was getting nowhere.

Eventually, like the Beatles on Taxman, released later that summer as the opening track to Revolver, Davies began by complaining about the state of the Labour government’s tax system. As good an opening line as ‘The tax man’s taken all my dough, and left me in my stately home, lazing on a sunny afternoon’ was, Davies wisely realised the public might not feel much sympathy for a rich rock star like him, and so the song evolved into the complaining of a loaded aristocrat who had inherited his money but fallen on hard times. He tried to make the character unloveable, adding that his girlfriend claimed he was cruel when drunk to help make record buyers dislike the protagonist.

You could argue that Davies failed in this however, because Sunny Afternoon is so damn charming. A lot of that is down to his brilliant delivery of the lyrics, which conjure up a tipsy, loaded n’er-do-well. It’s one of their most memorable tunes, and one of the best songs of the mid-60s.

Over the years though, I feel that perhaps the message of the song has become somewhat lost in translation in mainstream culture, and is now often used simply to portray the ‘great British summer’. Never mind the fact this guy was probably beating up his partner, lets just have a drink, enjoy the sun and sing along, yeah? That’s not the fault of the Kinks, however. It actually shows the genius of Davies, to be able to hide such biting lyrics within a catchy pop classic.

Although Sunny Afternoon was their last number 1, his genius would continue through the 1960s and early 70s, with albums like The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society (1968) and particularly singles like Waterloo Sunset and Days. Dave Davies would also prove himself to be a great songwriter with solo singles Death of a Clown (co-written with his brother) and Susannah’s Still Alive. Such great work didn’t always equate to hits at the time, though, and much of their best material has only grown in popularity long after release.

In early 1969 bassist Pete Quaife told the rest of the band he was leaving, despite Ray’s pleas for him to stay. He was replaced with John Dalton, who had filled in for him in the past. Their ban in the US was finally lifted, and they added John Gosling as a permanent keyboardist (Nicky Hopkins had filled this role on their recordings previously) when recording Lola. Their last true great single, this tale of an encounter with a transvestite was a top ten hit here and in the US.

The mid-70s were a tough time for the band, with Ray’s family problems causing him to collapse from a drug overdose after announcing he was retiring on stage in 1973. He focused on writing rock opera rather than pop instead, which was poorly recieved. Dalton claims that Ray has never been the same since this breakdown, and he left the group in 1976. Their fortunes improved over the next few years, helped along by the Jam citing them as a major influence and releasing their version of David Watts as a single.

In 1983 their single Come Dancing performed better than anything they had released in years, and they were back on Top of the Pops with a number 12 single, but personal problems came to the fore once more. Ray fell out with Dave over solo projects, Ray’s relationship with Pretenders’ singer Chrissie Hynde ended badly, and Dave finally refused to work with Avory any longer. He was replaced by Argent member Bob Henrit, but thanks to Ray he would contribute occasionally. Line-up changes continued, but Avory and Quaife did show up when the Kinks were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990.

Despite their public profile improving considerably in the mid-90s thanks to Britpop, one of the best UK groups in music finally chose to call it a day. They played together to celebrate Dave’s 50th at the Clissold Arms pub, where the Davies brothers musical journey had begun years ago.

A year later I saw Ray Davies for the first time at a sodden Glastonbury Festival, where he performed a mostly acoustic set of the classics. One of the few times I felt summery that weekend. When I next saw him there, during a blazing hot festival with my wife in 2010, Quaife had just died, and the highlight of another great show was a very emotional Davies dedicating Days to his former bassist and friend. He broke down several times while performing it. It was a very different show to 1997, his voice not as effective, but he was bolstered by a choir and both shows were great for different reasons.

Rumours of a Kinks reunion have never gone away, and baby boomers the world over were delighted to hear that the feuding brothers appeared to have finally buried the hatchet and a reformation was announced, with Avory also returning. Unfortunately, nothing seems truly concrete yet, but it is believed they will be working on a new album. No doubt it won’t match the glory days (few groups can), but I’d love to see Davies one last time at Glastonbury, this time with his brother and Avory alongside him.

Written by: Ray Davies

Producer: Shel Talmy

Weeks at number 1: 2 (7-20 July)

Births:

Actress Tamsin Grieg – 12 July
Presenter Johnny Vaughan – 16 July