360. David Essex – Gonna Make You a Star (1974)

With bucketloads of charisma and good looks to melt the heart of his fans, singer-songwriter and actor David Essex was a star in the making in the early 70s and finally hit the big time playing… a star in the making. And his first number 1 was about, yep, a star in the making.

Born David Albert Cook on 23 July 1947 in Plaistow, Essex, his father Albert was an East End docker and his mother Olive was an Irish traveller and a pianist. Albert contracted TB and underwent hospital treatment, so Olive and David lived with Olive’s sister in the early years. When Albert was finally better and David was two, the Cooks moved to Canning Town.

As a schoolboy, Cook was obsessed with football and played for West Ham Juniors, but that all that changed when he visited an R’n’B club called The Flamingo in Soho at the age of 13, and he learnt to play the drums, driving his neighbour mad to the point where he had a fight with Albert and was knocked out.

By the time he was living in Romford, Cook had played with a handful of blues bands, but manager Derek Bowman encouraged him to become a singer. He changed his name to ‘David Essex’ and recorded a single for Fontana in 1965, And the Tears Came Tumbling Down. For the next two years he toured nightclubs with a band as David Essex and the Mood Indigo, while also cutting his teeth as an actor in repertory theatre.

As the 70s began he built up momentum, at least in his acting, with small roles in the thriller Assault (1971) and drama All Coppers Are… in 1972. But it was getting the lead role in the stage musical Godspell in 1971 that really took things up a notch. Also among the cast was Jeremy Irons.

In 1973 Essex really struck gold when he was cast as the lead in the coming-of-age drama That’ll Be the Day. Set in the late-50s and early-60s, the film told the story of hedonistic teenager Jim MacLaine, and Essex was picked due to his inherent charm in an attempt to make the character more likable. Set to a nostalgic rock’n’roll soundtrack, it also starred musicians including Ringo Starr, Billy Fury and Keith Moon.

As the film was in production, Essex was also working on his debut album with Jeff Wayne. The son of actor and theatre producer Jerry, Wayne had composed the music for his father’s musical Two Cities in the late-60s. Inspired by his role in That’ll Be the Day, Essex wrote eventual title track Rock On, which name-checked James Dean, Summertime Blues and Blue Suede Shoes. Entering the studio for a vocal demo, Essex banged on a bin for the rhythm, and with echo applied, they liked the groove that formed. When it came to recording the song proper, they stuck to the sparse approach, with only three session musicians, and the bass played by Herbie Flowers brought to the forefront. Rock On was a slinky, sexy, edgy tune, and it deservedly became a big hit.

A year later, Essex was working on his eponymous second album and also filming Stardust, the sequel to That’ll Be the Day, marking MacLaine’s rise to fame later in the 60s. Once again inspired by his second job, he wrote Gonna Make You a Star, which became the opening track on David Essex.

Had Essex carried on down the path Rock On set out, he may be considered a more credible artist than he is. Instead, his two number 1s widened his fanbase by taking him down the family-friendly, lovable entertainer route, and to be fair, it certainly worked for him.

Although Gonna Make You a Star is inferior to Rock On, it’s an enjoyable commercial pop tune, which is partly down to Wayne’s colourful synthesiser work, which adds a nice bounce and sprightliness to proceedings. That line ‘Oh is he more, too much more than a pretty face’ shows a witty touch of irony from Essex, as does the retort ‘I don’t think so’. Pretty decent 70s pop-rock with a wink and a cheeky smile. Shaun Ryder, mentioned in my previous blog, was clearly a fan, as he quotes the chorus in the Happy Mondays track Lazyitis (One Armed Boxer), melding Essex’s song with The Beatles’ Ticket to Ride.

Written by: David Essex

Producer: Jeff Wayne

Weeks at number 1: 3 (16 November-6 December)

Births:

Comedy writer Stephen Merchant – 24 November
Welsh racing cyclist Wendy Houvenaghel – 27 November

Deaths:

Folk singer-songwriter Nick Drake – 25 November

Meanwhile…

21 November: The Birmingham pub bombings became one of the worst atrocities in the Troubles, when 21 people were killed and 182 injured by Provisional IRA explosions at the Mulberry Bush and Tavern in the Town. It was the worst terrorist act on English soil between the Second World War and the 2005 London bombings.

24 November: The Birmingham Six were charged with the pub bombings. Sentenced to life imprisonment in 1975, they protested their innocence and claimed they were coerced into signing confessions through severe psychological and physical abuse. They weren’t released until 1991 after their convictions were declared unsafe. It’s one of the biggest miscarriages of justice in British history

25 November: Home Secretary Roy Jenkins announced the government’s intention to outlaw the IRA in the UK.

27 November: The Prevention of Terrorism Act was passed.

5 December: The final episode of Monty Python was broadcast on BBC Two. The last series of the classic surreal sketch comedy had shortened its title and lost a member, when John Cleese declined to take part other than the penning of a few sketches.

295. Clive Dunn – Grandad (1971)

The first number 1 of 1971 had narrowly missed out on the 1970 Christmas number 1 spot, and although it’s not fit for much, it would have made a more fitting yuletide chart-topper than I Hear You Knocking. Grandad, by comedy actor Clive Dunn, was a canny grab at the purse-strings of pensioners and children, and in that sense was an early pioneer of the novelty Christmas song market. Factor in Dunn’s popularity as doddery old Lance Corporal Jones in BBC One sitcom Dad’s Army, and there’s little surprise it spent three weeks at number 1.

Clive Robert Benjamin Dunn was born in Brixton, South London on 9 January 1920, meaning he had only turned 51 on the day his one-hit wonder about life as an OAP hit pole position. Both his parents were actors, and his cousin was Gretchen Franklin – better known as Ethel in BBC One soap opera EastEnders. Dunn had small roles in films while at school in the 30s, appearing alongside comedy actor Will Hay in Boys Will Be Boys in 1935.

Dunn’s acting ambitions were swept to one side when he served in World War Two for real, joining the British Army in 1940. He served in the Middle East until 1941 when he and hundreds of others were forced to surrender. Dunn was held as a POW in Austria for four years, but stayed with the Army upon his release, until 1947, when he returned to acting.

Fast forward to the mid-50s, and Dunn had found his calling in comedy roles, making several appearances alongside Tony Hancock on ITV and his classic radio series Hancock’s Half-Hour. In the early 60s he took on a role that would define the rest of his career, playing a comical 83-year-old man in ITV sitcom Bootsie and Snudge. He was only 38 at the time.

This made Dunn a natural choice to star in Dad’s Army as the nervy butcher Jones in 1968. As one of the youngest members of cast he could take the brunt of any physical comedy. The role in Jimmy Perry and David Croft’s sitcom made Dunn one of the most popular comedy stars of the era.

In 1970 Dunn met top session bassist Herbie Flowers at a BBC party. Flowers was a founding member of Melting Pot hitmakers Blue Mink and played bass on David Bowie’s Space Oddity (number 1 on its re-release in 1975). Upon discovering his occupation, Dunn allegedly challenged Flowers to write him a hit song.

So Flowers went away and with Dunn’s Dad’s Army character clearly in mind, he wrote a novelty song written from the point of view of an old man looking back at his youth. However, he was stuck for a chorus, until his friend Kenny Pickett (singer with 60s rock band The Creation) called round. Ringing the doorbell, a standard ‘ding dong’ chimed, and Flowers had the simple but scarily effective hook he was looking for.

Over a leaden backing featuring ukelele, Flowers’ bass (I assume), and parping brass, Dunn recalls penny farthings, penny dreadfuls, ‘talking things’, and best of all, how ‘Motorcars were funny things, frightening’, when he was a lad. At the exact point you’re hoping his nurse will interject and give him his medication or clean him up, in comes a sickly kiddie choir, thankfully kept to a minimum, singing ‘Grandad, grandad you’re lovely
/That’s what we all think of you’. Let’s be grateful they didn’t overdo it, unlike the similar Christmas number 1 of 1980, There’s No One Quite Like Grandma. Incidentally, co-producer Ray Cameron, is comedian Michael McIntyre’s dad.

It’s rotten, cynical stuff, but at least Flowers made up for it. He’s played on hundreds of hits over the years, and among other things, was a member of CSS, T. Rex and Sky. He also performed on Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of The War of the Worlds, but most notably, he was the man behind the bass line on Lou Reed’s Walk on the Wild Side. So we can forgive him.

We can forgive Dunn too, such was his charm. He was a staunch socialist too, who would argue with Conservative voter Arthur Lowe over politics, so he’s alright by me (although he did have a brief flirtation with Oswald Moseley’s British Union of Fascists in his youth, which he regretted). He was also known for his friendliness towards autograph seekers.

Dad’s Army ended in 1977, and two years later Dunn found work playing – what else? – an old man in BBC children’s series Grandad. Despite the obvious similarities, it was unrelated to his number 1. When his role as Charlie Quick ended in 1984, Dunn retired and moved to Portugal.

It blew my young mind, growing up on repeats of Dad’s Army in the 80s, to know that Dunn was one of the youngest cast members and one of the few still alive. But even he got old for real eventually, and he died as a result of operation complications on 6 November 2012, aged 92.

Written by: Herbie Flowers & Kenny Pickett

Producers: Peter Dulay & Ray Cameron

Weeks at number 1: 3 (9-29 January)

Births:

Artist Jay Burridge – 12 January
Actress Lara Cazalet – 15 January
Take That singer-songwriter Gary Barlow – 20 January
Scottish snooker player Alan McManus – 21 January
Sports broadcaster Clare Balding – 29 January

Deaths:

Northern Irish dramatist St John Greer Ervine – 24 January
Psychoanalyst – Donald Winnicott – 28 January

Meanwhile…

12 January: The Hertfordshire home of Robert Carr, Secretary of State for Employment, was bombed, but nobody was injured.

14 January: Extremist group The Angry Brigade claimed responsibility for the bombing of Robert Carr’s house, in addition to planting a bomb at the Department of Employment offices at Westminster.

20 January: UPW General Secretary Tom Jackson led the first ever postal workers’ strike took place. Workers were insisting on a 19.5% pay rise.

21 January: After collapsing in March 1969, a newly reconstructed Emley Moor transmitter in West Yorkshire starts again. It became Britain’s tallest freestanding structure, a concrete tower standing at 1084ft.

23 January: The first Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, in Singapore, gave Britain permission to sell weapons to South Africa.