279. The Archies – Sugar Sugar (1969)

The penultimate number 1 of the 60s sat pretty in the top spot for close to two whole months, and only narrowly missed out on the Christmas number 1 spot. Before delving deeper into the slick pop of Sugar Sugar by the cartoon band, the Archies, what else was happening in the UK?

Three weeks into its run, regular colour TV broadcasts, began on both BBC One and ITV on 15 November. The very next day saw the BBC One debut of much-loved children’s stop-motion animated TV series Clangers.

The day after, in a move that had a far-reaching effect on the British press, The Sun newspaper, previously a left-wing broadsheet, was relaunched as a right-wing tabloid. Despite falling circulation, it remains influential and one of the most popular newspapers in the country.

On 25 November, John Lennon returned his MBE in protest against the British involvement in Biafra, as well as supporting the US in Vietnam. The Beatles as cuddly establishment moptops seemed a long time ago.

As a cold late November turned into a mild early December, Sugar Sugar held firm. On 10 December it was announced that organic chemist Derek Barton had jointly won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry with the Norwegian Odd Hassel. Barclays Bank purchased Martins Bank on 15 December, and three days later, the abolition of the death penalty was made permanent by Parliament. Whether our new government will bring it back, only time will tell.

Also that day, the sixth James Bond film, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, was released. This was the first and last to feature George Lazenby, after Sean Connery had quit the role.

Artists like the Beatles and Bob Dylan had made self-penned songs fashionable, and for most of the 60s, it was they and others of their ilk that often reached the top spot. But as the pop audience matured and moved on to buying albums, the gap was starting to be filled by bubblegum pop – squeaky-clean commercial songs, like Dizzy, made to order by hit-making teams, much like in the 50s, and given to singers such as Tommy Roe.

It would be a lie to say this type of thing had ever really gone away though. Motown aped the production-line of the car factories of its hometown Detroit, and the Monkees were a pop phenomenon whose songs were mostly written and recorded by other musicians, until they broke free. And it was Don Kirshner, the man that had been dumped by the Monkees, that came up with the idea of turning a comic into a band in 1968. From his point of view, it was a no-brainer. All had been going well until the Monkees got too big for their boots – why not start over, only this time, why not remove all pretence that the band is real? And why not use cartoon characters that already had a huge audience to give the project a head start? After all, it had worked in the 50s – Alvin and the Chipmunks had been and still are very successful.

Kirshner was hired by CBS in late 1967 to be musical supervisor on their new Saturday morning cartoon series The Archie Show. Based on popular characters from The Archie Comics, which began in 1941, it followed the adventures of a bunch of all-American teenage friends from Riverdale High School that had formed a band. 17-year-old Archie Andrews was the central figure, lead singer and rhythm guitarist. His best friend Jughead Jones was their drummer, with wisecracking Reggie Mantle on bass. But unusually, this wasn’t just a boy’s own setup, very unusual for that time. Rich girl Veronica Lodge also sang and played keyboards, and tomboy Betty Cooper was lead guitarist and percussionist. Girl power!

The show had a 17-episode run, premiering in the US in September 1968 until January 1969. Kirshner’s job was to hire the songwriters and musicians for the songs the Archies would be performing. He wasted no time in hiring Jeff Barry to co-produce with him. Barry, together with Ellie Greenwich, was responsible for some of the biggest pop hits of the decade, including Da Doo Ron Ron, Then He Kissed Me and Do Wah Diddy Diddy, a number 1 for Manfred Mann in 1964. He had co-written Tell Laura I Love Her with Ben Raleigh, which had been a UK number 1 for Ricky Valance in 1960, and worked with Kirshner on the Monkees’ hits, including producing their UK chart-topper I’m a Believer.

For their eponymous debut album, the Archies music was performed by singer Ron Dante, drummer Gary Chester, guitarist Dave Appell, bassist Joey Macho (great name) and keyboardist Ron Frangipane (even better name). Kirshner had wanted Kenny Karen to be the vocalist, but Barry liked Dante, who had been the singer novelty parody band the Detergents. He was also in the rock group the Cuff Links.

The first single released, Bang-Shang-A-Lang (sounds like a Bay City Rollers song title) did okay, reaching number 22 on the Billboard chart in the US, so the project continued.

For the sessions for second album, Everything’s Archie, Kirshner left Barry to produce alone. Among the material was a song by Barry and Canadian singer-songwriter Andy Kim. Sugar Sugar was catchy as hell, and encapsulated bubblegum pop totally. It was all wide-eyed innocence, as sweet as the title suggested and contained hook upon hook. Kim also plated guitar and joined Dante on the vocals, and Toni Wine performed the female voices. Wine was a songwriter too, and had co-written A Groovy Kind of Love with Carole Bayer Sager for the Mindbenders. Joining them and the line-up of the debut album was guitarist Sal DiTroia and Ray Stevens provided the all-important handclaps.

Sugar Sugar was so strong, they decided to release it before the LP was completed. Allegedly, because previous single Feelin’ So Good (S.K.O.O.B.Y-.D.O.O.) hadn’t performed well, Kirshner decided not to reveal the identity of the band behind Sugar Sugar when DJs got their hands on it in May 1969. Whether this is true or not, it was some time before it became really big. It eventually climbed to the top in the US that September, and the UK a month later.

I totally get the reasons for Sugar Sugar‘s enduring popularity, for all the reasons I’ve given above, and more – mostly the infectious keyboard interjections in the chorus, obviously. It has all the ingredients needed for a pop song. But it’s never done much for me. Even as a child, I found it a bit too sickly-sweet and cloying. I found the lyrics silly and the ‘band’ irritating, having never actually seen the cartoon, just the clips compiled to make a music video.

As an adult, it’s all a bit too cynical and professional for my liking. Don’t get me wrong, I no longer feel, as I did in my 20s, that music is only any good if the artist is ‘4 Real’, but try as I might, Sugar Sugar mostly leaves me cold. The ‘Pour your sugar on me, honey’ line is quite good though, and sung with some much-needed passion.

Sugar Sugar was the best-selling song of 1969 and stayed at number 1 for eight weeks – a feat that was last achieved by the Shadows with Wonderful Land in 1962. I can only assume the TV show was being shown in the UK at the time and doing well too, otherwise, why would it perform even better here than in the US? Whatever the reasons, it was a sign of things to come in the following decade, as bubblegum pop continued to sell hugely, and innocent acts like the Osmonds entrancing children. The idea of cartoon bands surfaces in the charts from time to time – Damon Albarn’s Gorillaz, for example.

Filmation continued to produce various Archies TV shows until 1978, but the musical project had ground to a halt before then. Nothing matched Sugar Sugar, and after follow-up Jingle Jangle (not featuring Jimmy Savile), the band’s success tailed off sharply. Fourth album Sunshine in 1970 (which has great sun-drenched, slightly sinister artwork that wouldn’t look out of place on a Boards of Canada release) was the last to feature Jeff Barry and Andy Kim properly, and was more grown-up than previous releases. 1971’s This Is Love was the final regular release.

Barry became interested in writing music for film and television afterwards, and Kim had a solo hit in 1974 with Rock Me Gently. After a short-lived solo career, Dante moved into production and did very well at it, producing hits for Barry Manilow. In 2008 he returned to the Riverdale teens, singing on The Archies Christmas Album. Kirshner continued to work in music for TV shows. He died of heart failure in 2011, aged 76.

Archie Comics continued to be mined, with Sabrina, the Teenage Witch proving to be the other most popular character. Archie Andrews was killed off in 2014, shot in the stomach while saving the life of his friend, Senator Kevin Keller. Riverdale was renamed Archie Andrews High School in his honour. 2017 saw the debut of TV drama series Riverdale, which turned the premise of the characters on its head, with the lives of Archie and co proving much darker than the original comic-strip could ever have been.

And while we’re on the subject of ‘dark’, if Sugar Sugar had lasted at number 1 a further week, it would have been Christmas number 1 and the final chart-topper of the decade. However, it was pipped by another hugely popular children’s song, now sadly infamous thanks to the singer.

Can you tell what it is yet?

Written by: Andy Kim & Jeff Barry

Producer: Jeff Barry

Weeks at number 1: 8 (25 October-19 December) *BEST-SELLING SINGLE OF THE YEAR*

Births:

Scottish actor Gerard Butler – 13 November
Rock drummer Michael Lee – 19 November
Politician Sajid Javid – 5 December
TV presenter Richard Hammond – 19 December

Deaths:

Bandleader Ted Heath – 18 November
Princess Alice of Battenburg – 5 December

254. Tommy James and the Shondells – Mony Mony (1968)

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The day this number 1 hit the top was a milestone in television comedy. 31 July saw the first ever episode of World War Two comedy series Dad’s Army transmitted on BBC One. Written by Jimmy Perry and David Croft, it ran for the next nine years and has been repeated eternally ever since. It’ll probably be the last programme on TV when Donald Trump or Boris Johnson press the big red button.

Mony Mony was the first time in a good few years that SEX raised its head in pole position of the singles chart. Psychedelia might have been a time for free love, but lust (by and large) seemed somewhat neutered on 7-inches (snigger).

Rock band Tommy James and the Shondells had an interesting history up to this point. Tommy James, real name Tommy Jackson was born in Dayton, Ohio in April 1947. He had his first taste of stardom while very young – he was a child model at the age of four. Jackson formed his first group in the new family hometown of Niles, Michigan aged 12. Originally called the Echoes in 1959, then Tom and the Tornadoes, they released a single, Long Pony Tail, in 1962. They settled on the Shondells in 1964 by way of tribute to singer Troy Shondell.

That year, while still at high school, they recorded the Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich song Hanky Panky, but although it garnered a good local following, it failed to break out, and the Shondells split the following year.

While Jackson tried and failed in new groups, Hanky Panky was discovered in a bargain bin by a local DJ and he helped the song gain a new following. Bootlegs were soon pressed up and Hanky Panky was more popular than ever. Jackson travelled to New York in search of a record deal. Unfortunately, he found one with Roulette Records. The label was owned by Morris Levy. A hard-nosed criminal who swindled his acts out of royalties, Levy managed to scare any other interested label away from Jackson, even much bigger ones than his own. Levy inspired the character Hesh in The Sopranos.

Of course, the Shondells as they were had long since split, so Jackson searched for a new band, and found them in a house band called the Raconteurs in Greensburg, Pennsylvania. He changed his name professionally to Tommy James and soon the most famous line-up of the Shondells settled on guitarist Eddie Gray, bassist Mike Vale, Ron Rosman on keyboards and Pete Lucia on drums. With the backing of Levy, Hanky Panky became number 1 on the Billboard chart in 1966.

The next few singles didn’t perform spectacularly, but eventually they found their groove, a bubblegum pop and rock sound, with songwriters and producers Bo Gentry and Ritchie Cordell. They wrote, among others, I Think We’re Alone Now, a UK number 1 for Tiffany in 1988.

By 1968, Tommy James and the Shondells were working on a promising new song, which was more or less complete, but James was struggling for a title. He had considered Sloopy or Bony Maroney, but thought they sounded stupid. They tried in vain, until James went outside, looked up and saw the Mututal of New York building. Its initials were illuminated in red at the top, and James had his ‘eureka!’ moment.

Also credited to singer-songwriter Bobby Bloom, Mony Mony was, as I said, the raunchiest UK number 1 for some time. Okay, we’re not talking Justify My Love levels of filth here, but we’re still a year off Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin topping the charts. It’s clear James is feeling like one horny bugger during the chorus. Unfortunately, as catchy as the ‘Mony Mony’ chant is, it’s a bit too bubblegum, and the backing vocals keep James in check. There’s an interesting tension there. I’ve always liked this tune, after first hearing punk rocker Billy Idol’s version as a child.

Mony Mony didn’t reach number 1 in the US, but enjoyed a fortnight in the UK over the summer. It was then briefly toppled by the Crazy World of Arthur Brown, but after only a week, Fire was usurped by Mony Mony for a further week.

Tommy James and the Shondells were beginning to tire of the bubblegum element of their material, and decided on a mature, pyschedelic sound. It paid off, and Crimson and Clover (which was pretty much a Tommy James solo single in all but name) ended a great year for the group at number 1 in the US. One of their bestsellers in 1969 was the sublime Crystal Blue Persuasion, used to great effect in Breaking Bad many years later. They did make a big misstep that year though, laughing off an invitation to play at a festival called Woodstock.

James and the Shondells came to an abrupt halt in 1970 when an exhausted James came off stage and collapsed. He was initially pronounced dead due to drugs. Wisely, James took off for a quiet life in the country. The Shondells renamed themselves Hog Heaven but disbanded after two albums. James however remained in the business and along with a solo career he wrote and produced a US hit for Alive N Kickin in 1970.

60s nostalgia was everywhere in the 80s, and Tommy James and the Shondells did very well out of it. Idol’s Mony Mony was released in 1982, Joan Jett & the Blackhearts had a hit with Crimson and Clover, and then in 1987 Tiffany’s I Think We’re Alone Now and a live version of Mony Mony by Idol were back-to-back chart-toppers in the US.

Thanks to audiences at Idol gigs, Mony Mony became way filthier than the original version. In between every line in the verses, crowds began to chant either ‘Hey, say what… get laid get fucked!’ or ‘Hey, motherfucker… get laid get fucked!’. Then the chorus chant was changed to ‘Fucking horny!’. Dear me.

All this renewed interest in the band inevitably led to James and a new Shondells line-up joining the oldies circuit. Classic-era drummer Lucia died while playing golf in 1987, aged 39.

2010 saw the publication of James’s autobiography. Me, The Mob, and The Music. It detailed how he was left out of pocket by Roulette Records and how it was in fact cover for Levy’s money-laundering operation. He even had to leave New York at one point to avoid being the victim of a Mob hit. He still performs live with a version of the Shondells.

While Mony Mony was number 1, British Rail’s last steam train service ended. On 11 August, steam locomotives made the 314-mile return passenger journey from Liverpool to Carlisle. The trains were either sent to the scrapyard or kept for preservation.

Written by: Tommy James, Bo Gentry, Ritchie Cordell & Bobby Bloom

Producers: Bo Gentry & Ritchie Cordell

Weeks at number 1: 3 (31 July-13 August, 21-27 August)

Births:

Scottish race driver Colin McRae – 5 August
Footballer Julian Dicks – 8 August
Cyclist Chris Boardman – 26 August 

Deaths:

Princess Marina, Duchess of Kent – 27 August 

228. The Monkees – I’m a Believer (1967)

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1967! The Summer of Love! Hippies! And Milton Keynes! Yes, on 23 January, this village in northern Buckinghamshire was formally designated as a new town. Over the next few decades it became Britain’s largest of its kind. Three days later Parliament amounted it would nationalise 90% of the British steel industry.

On 3 February, eccentric genius producer Joe Meek killed himself – you can read more about that whole sorry tale here.

6 February saw Soviet Union Premier Alexei Kosygin arriving in the UK for an eight-day visit, with a visit the Queen thrown in too. The following day the British National Front was founded by South African AK Chesterton.

1967 was a turbulent year for the Rolling Stones, with their troubles beginning on 12 February when police raided the home of Keith Richards. He, Jagger and art dealer Robert Fraser were later charged with possession of drugs.

Enjoying a deservedly lengthy month-long stint at the top of the charts were the Monkees with I’m a Believer. Although I’m a snob when it comes to music, and think the entertainment industry took over the music business to such an extent it stifled creativity and nearly brought about its demise, I have a massive soft spot for the Monkees. In fact it’s not a soft spot – they’re easily one of my favourite groups of the 1960s. And their rise and fall is a fascinating subject.

It’s widely acknowledged that the Monkees were an American attempt at apeing (ho ho) the Beatles, but in fact aspiring filmmaker Bob Rafelson first came up with it back in 1962. I wonder how that would have ended up? In 1964 he was working for the film company Screen Gems and had teamed up with Bert Schneider. They had just formed Raybert Productions when they saw A Hard Day’s Night, and Schneider thought the time might be right to revive his idea. He was right, and Screen Gems snapped up the idea.

Fast forward to May 1965, and Raybert Productions wanted folk-rockers the Lovin’ Spoonful to be their band, but as singer John Sebastian had already signed to make recordings, they had to look elsewhere. And as the plan was for the TV show to feature a pretend band, why limit themselves to just musicians?

Mancunian actor Davy Jones was chosen first. He had appeared in Coronation Street and made waves as the Artful Dodger in the Broadway show Oliver! He just needed a big break, was already signed to Screen Gems, and with his baby-face and sweet demeanour, could easily pass for a Paul McCartney-type. One down.

The other three members were all from the US and came from auditions held later that year. Micky Dolenz, from Los Angeles, California, was also an actor, having appeared as a child in the TV series Circus Boy. He did have some experience of being in a band though, and, importantly, he had a great voice.

Mike Nesmith, from Houston Texas, had been working as a musician since 1963, and had featured in a few bands, as well as performing on his own. His audition showcased a laconic humour and bullish personality, so they now had their John Lennon. Maybe they’d even let him write some tunes?

Last to be chosen was fellow musician Peter Tork, who was part of the Greenwich Village folk scene. Stephen Stills suggested he try out after being rejected himself. Poor Tork, despite being gifted and bright, was soon portraying a bumbling but lovable fool – basically, Ringo Starr in A Hard Day’s Night.

While the auditions went on, Don Krishner was hired to sort out the music for the pilot episode. Kirshner had been instrumental in making Bobby Darin famous, and knew the Brill Building team of songwriters, so seemed like a great choice. But he couldn’t get any interest, so he tried Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart instead. They wrote the theme to the series, and offered up another three songs, so things were looking good, apart from the fact the Monkees couldn’t play anything together, and the plan was to release an album to cash in on the series.

Their eponymous debut album was recorded in June 1966, and by and large the formula was to have one Monkee singing per track, with everything else supplied by session musicians the Wrecking Crew. Debut single Last Train to Clarksville, sounding not dissimilar to Paperback Writer, was released before the show had been aired, and still did pretty well. However, Nesmith wasn’t happy that the actual musicians received no credit on the LP.

The series was a smash as soon as it began in the US that September, and a month later the follow-up was recorded. I’m a Believer had been written and originally recorded by Neil Diamond, then still a struggling Brill Building songwriter. The Monkees version featured Dolenz on vocals, along with, among others, Al Gorgoni on guitar (he had played on Simon and Garfunkel’s Sound of Silence), Buddy Salzman on drums, and that chirpy organ hook at the start and through the choruses came from Stan Free on a Vox Continental.

Nesmith certainly had a point in wanting the Monkees to be responsible for ‘real music’, but all these years later, people still go mad to I’m a Believer, and they don’t care who did what. It’s such a lovely, warm track, that captures how the joy of love at first sight can melt the hardest of hearts. The success of the TV series was in a large part due to the charm of the group, and somehow, no matter who appeared on their recorded output, that charm shone through too, whether by luck or design, or both, I can’t say. The Monkees at their best put their name to 60s pop at its best, and I’m a Believer is among their finest singles. That’s partly down to producer Jeff Barry, who had written many hit singles before then, including Do Wah Diddy Diddy.

The TV series began in the UK on New Year’s Eve 1966, and Monkeemania began soon after when this single climbed the charts. Tensions soon rose though when the band discovered it had been included on their second album, More of the Monkees. They didn’t even know the album existed until it was too late, and were horrified at the track listing and cover image. Nesmith told Melody Maker it was ‘probably the worst album in the history of the world’. Matters came to a head in an argument with Kirshner that resulted in Nesmith threatening to quit before punching a hole in a wall and shouting ‘that could have been your face!’ to a lawyer. Soon after, Kirshner was let go.

And then things got really interesting. The Monkees wrested control of their output, and in February 1967 they began recording their third album Headquarters. For the first and only time of their original run as a band, they performed the tracks pretty much on their own, and had more of a hand in the songwriting, with Chip Douglas from the Turtles on bass and production duties. Largely country-rock-flavoured, Headquarters is a great achievement for a ‘manufactured’ band. It may not be up there with the classic albums of 1967, but it’s a giant leap forward for the foursome. Highlight for me is Micky Dolenz’s noise-fest closer Randy Scouse Git, named after one of Alf Garnett’s favourite outbursts at his son-in-law (played by Tony Blair’s father-in-law, Tony Booth) on BBC One sitcom Till Death Us Do Part. It nearly became their second number 1 too, but stalled at number two against All You Need Is Love.

It’s a shame the Monkees then chose to rely on session musicians again, as I think it sped up their demise. Having said that, they still had more authority over who they worked with, and fourth album Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd, released that November, is just as good, if not better than its predecessor. It featured Gerry Goffin and Carole King’s wonderful and blissful Pleasant Valley Sunday, which had been a single during the Summer of Love. The album featured a Moog synthesizer – Dolenz was one of the first owners of the instrument. Another classic hit single was released as 1967 drew to a close – Daydream Believer, Davy Jones’s finest hour as a singer.

The TV show had been getting weirder, the band were touring as a real unit, alongside the Jimi Hendrix Experience, and they were hanging out with the Beatles. Amazing times for a group who weren’t supposed to be able to play.

1968 wasn’t such a great year, but at least it was interesting. NBC announced they wouldn’t renew the show for a third season in February, and shortly afterwards they released The Birds, the Bees & the Monkees. The band mostly worked alone, with their own team of musicians, making for an eclectic sound. Nesmith fares the best with the low-key psychedelic strum of Tapioca Tundra.

Rafelson and Schneider had it in mind to create a feature film for the Monkees. What the group didn’t know at the start was that their plan was a work of cynical avant-garde genius that would cynically tear apart at the notion of the group. Written by then-unknown actor Jack Nicholson with Rafelson, Head set out to prove that no matter what the band members did to try and break free of their public image, they would always be considered nothing more than a cartoon band, no more real than the Archies, also created in 1968. Head is one of the greatest music films of all time, a technicolour masterpiece with a dark heart. And the soundtrack is just as great. There aren’t many actual songs, but they’re all excellent, especially Goffin and King’s spaced-out Porpoise Song and sweet love song As We Go Along, plus Tork finally gets the spotlight with the fuzzy blast of the marvellously named Long Title: Do I Have to Do This All Over Again? Nesmith always contributed great songs to their albums, but Circle Sky, an impressive blast of acid-country-rock, is one of his best.

In 1969, not long after their disappointing TV special 33⅓ Revolutions Per Monkee, Tork left, and the downhill slide truly began. There were still some great songs, including both tracks on the single Someday Man/Listen to the Band, but things were never the same again. The Monkees Present, released in October, was the last to feature Nesmith. Dolenz and Jones soldiered on with one more album, Changes, released in 1970. It was a new decade, and time to move on.

In the meantime each member had varying degrees of success. Nesmith became a country-rock pioneer and helped invent MTV.  Dolenz moved into acting and directing, and along the way he made UK children’s series Metal Mickey in the 80s. Incidentally, both he and Nesmith auditioned to be the Fonz in Happy Days. Jones went back to mostly acting, and became a popular choice for cameos in US sitcoms. He also became a jockey. Tork was in the public eye the least, but I get the feeling he liked it that way.

There have been a number of reunions, most notably in 1986 when repeats of the series prompted a revival and new 20th anniversary album, minus Nesmith, called Pool It! It’s shockingly bad. A large factor in Nesmith’s reluctance to tour was money. He inherited $25 million when his mother, the inventor of liquid paper, passed away. This meant there was no financial incentive to reunite, so over the years he only got involved again when he really felt like it.

He returned in 1996 when they celebrated their 30th anniversary with Justus, an album featuring the band writing, performing and producing every song. Another poor collection, bar the Circle Sky remake, but not as bad as Pool It! They also reunited for another TV special, but it wasn’t half as clever as it thought it was. Following a tour of the UK, Nesmith left again and relations became strained. In 2010 they reformed for the final time as a quartet, as Jones died of a heart attack in 2012, aged 66.

In 2015, Dolenz and Tork toured together, and the following year they released a new album, Good Times!, to commemorate their 50th anniversary. Nesmith joined in, and Jones appeared too posthumously. With songs by musicians including Weezer’s Rivers Cuomo, XTC’s Andy Partridge and Death Cab for Cutie’s Ben Gibbard, Good Times! was, against all odds, a great listen. Highlight for me was Paul Weller and Noel Gallagher’s Birth of an Accidental Hipster.

This would have been the perfect way to end the Monkees, but, buoyed by the reception to Good Times!, they released an album this past Christmas. Christmas Party features a similar line-up of songwriters, and once again, Jones is exhumed, but its mostly cheesy and Dolenz’s vocals really grate on me. Tork’s contribution was minimal due to illness, with him contributing only a sweet banjo-led version of the traditional Angels We Have Heard on High. Perhaps he knew he hadn’t long, for this was his final contribution to the Monkees. Tork sadly died aged 77 only last week.

The Monkees were certainly not perfect. They could be corny, and recorded some terrible songs at times, particularly those godawful mawkish ballads sung by Jones on the first two albums. But how many groups, put together by the industry, have been able to do what they did, to take over and create better results? They may have been manufactured, but they can’t be compared to, say, the boy bands of the 90s. My issue with Westlife et al isn’t that somebody is telling them what to do, it’s the quality of the material, the cynicism, and the lack of effort. The people behind the Monkees were often craftsmen, and as I said before, in their best material, the charm of Mike, Davy, Micky and Peter shines through, and they could experiment, be far-out, and savage at times (the Sex Pistols even covered (I’m Not Your) Stepping Stone). I’m a Believer is one of their best. I love the Monkees, and I’m not ashamed to admit it.

28 years after it reached number 1, I’m a Believer was nearly a chart-topper for my favourite comedians, Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer. Attempting to repeat the success of Dizzy, recorded with the Wonder Stuff, they teamed up with indie rockers EMF for a great, beefed-up version, and you can see the video here.

Written by: Neil Diamond

Producer: Jeff Barry

Weeks at number 1: 4 (19 January-15 February) 

Births:

Field hockey player Kathryn Johnson – 21 January 
Swimmer Nick Gillingham – 22 January
Actress Olivia d’Abo – 22 January

Deaths:

Producer Joe Meek – 3 February (read more here)
Publisher Victor Gollancz – 8 February

 

175. Manfred Mann – Do Wah Diddy Diddy (1964)

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On 13 August 1964, Peter Anthony Allen at Walton Prison, Liverpool and Gwynne Owen Evans at Strangeways Prison, Manchester were hanged for the murder of John Alan West on 7 April. They were the last executions to take place in the UK. Football TV programme Match of the Day began broadcasting on BBC Two on 22 August, making it the longest-running football show in the world.

The number 1 at the time of the executions was a suitably sombre affair befitting the occasion. Actually, no it wasn’t, It was Doo Wah Diddy Diddy by Manfred Mann. An unusual song by an unusual band. Manfred Mann was the keyboard player in Manfred Mann, but it wasn’t his name. Confused yet?

Mann’s real name was Manfred Lubowitz. Born in Johannesburg, South Africa in 1940, the aspiring jazz pianist moved to the UK in 1961 and took the name Manfred Manne in tribute to the jazz drummer Shelley Manne. He soon dropped the ‘e’. In 1962 Mann met percussionist Mike Hugg at Butlin’s in Clacton, and they formed a house band that included Graham Bond. Mann and Hugg decided to form a new group known as the Mann-Hugg Blues Brothers, with the aim of combining jazz with the new R’n’B sound that was becoming popular. The line-up quickly grew, but they struggled to find a singer until they met Paul Jones. Jones, originally Paul Pond, had previously performed duets as ‘PP Jones’ with Elmo Lewis. Lewis was in fact Brian Jones. At one point Jones and Keith Richards had asked Jones to be the singer in a new group but he turned them down. By the end of 1962 the group was known as Manfred Mann & the Manfreds, and were a five-piece which also included Mike Vickers on guitar, saxophone and flute, and Dave Richmond on bass.

The quintet signed with EMI in March 1963 and were assigned to the His Master’s Voice label to work with producer John Burgess, who had produced Adam Faith’s two number 1s, What Do You Want? (1959) and Poor Me (1960). Burgess thought they had potential but insisted they make their name snappier and despite Mann’s reluctance, they became Manfred Mann. The group’s first few singles didn’t chart, but their profile received a huge boost when they were asked to come up with a new theme tune for the ITV music series Ready, Steady, Go! The result, 5-4-3-2-1, rocketed up the charts to number five. Richmond left the band shortly afterwards to be replaced by Jones’ friend Tom McGuinness.

A few singles later, the band opted to cover married couple Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich’s Do-Wah-Diddy, which had been released in 1963 by US vocal group the Exciters. Together with Phil Spector, they had helped define the girl group sound of the early 1960s, and Do-Wah-Diddy was considered a sequel to Da Doo Ron Ron, which had been a huge success for the Crystals. Manfred Man opted to rename their version Do Wah Diddy Diddy, for some reason. It was an odd song choice for a jazz and R’n’B group, but one that paid off well.

Do Wah Diddy Diddy is a strange but memorable mix of bizarre lyrics, sung earnestly by Jones in his best bluesy voice, with an incredibly catchy tune that has stood it in good stead over the years. It suffers next to the recent batch of classic number 1s, but it’s better than some would say, mainly because the tune is one hell of an earworm. Never think the British public will deny a good song just because the lyrics are gibberish. Comedian Peter Kay certainly has a point about those opening lines though:

‘There she was just a-walkin’ down the street, singin’ “Do wah diddy diddy dum diddy do”
Snappin’ her fingers and shufflin’ her feet, singin’ “Do wah diddy diddy dum diddy do”

Taken literally, that’s a very strange image, isn’t it? Yet it’s taken as read that the song is simply about a guy who’s turned on by a girl on the street. Critics point out that Jones’ vocal is out of place in what is essentially a fun track, but I’d argue such passion makes it clear what he’s really singing about. So all in all, no classic, but I can see why it’s stood the test of time.

The success of Do Wah Diddy Diddy meant Manfred Mann moved further away from their original sound for their single releases, covering other girl groups for their 45s and tucking the jazz and R’n’B away on their albums. Two more number 1s would appear over the next few years.

Written by: Jeff Barry & Ellie Greenwich

Producer: John Burgess

Weeks at number 1: 2 (13-26 August)

107. Ricky Valance – Tell Laura I Love Her (1960)

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As the summer of 1960 turned to Autumn, heavy rainfall caused severe flooding in the valley of the River Exe and surrounding areas of Devon, and on 7 October, flooding takes place in Horncastle, Lincolnshire. To this day (26 March 2018), it still holds the UK record for the highest 180-min total rainfall at 178mm. Six days earlier, Nigeria was the latest country to gain its independence from the UK. The Sheffield Tramway closed on 8 October, leaving Blackpool as the only place in England using electric trams, and on 17 October the daily News Chronicle stopped publishing, becoming absorbed into the Daily Mail.

During these three weeks, Ricky Valance became the first Welsh male artist to hit the number 1 spot, with one of the more famous teenage tragedy songs of the early 1960s, Tell Laura I Love Her. This genre had been growing in popularity from the mid-to-late 50s, melding rock’n’roll with the stories normally told in folk ballads. The first notable example of these songs was Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller’s Black Denim Trousers and Motorcycle Boots, sang by the Cheers. This song grew in popularity following James Dean’s death in a car accident in 1955. However, the first teenage tragedy song to hit number 1 in the UK had only happened in March 1960. Johnny Preston’s Running Bear had been an unusual track, telling the tale of the doomed romance of two Indians, complete with politically incorrect Indian chanting from George Jones and JP ‘The Big Bopper’ Richardson (who had written the track before his untimely death in 1959). Tell Laura I Love Her had been written by Jeff Barry and Ben Raleigh. Barry went on to write or co-write some of the biggest songs of the 60s, including Do Wah Diddy Diddy, Be My Baby, River Deep – Mountain High and Sugar Sugar.

Tell Laura I Love Her had been a big hit in the US for Ray Peterson, but Decca Records refused to release it in the UK, considering it ‘tasteless and vulgar’. 20,000 copies that had already been made were destroyed. An over-the-top reaction, no doubt, but for many, the permissive 60s were yet to actually happen. The BBC were also loathe to play these ‘death discs’, but the Beeb had banned songs before, and it hadn’t stopped them reaching number 1 (see David Whitfield and Frankie Laine‘s versions of Answer Me). Not that this song was particularly vulgar, anyway. So when EMI Columbia offered the track to their new signing, Ricky Valance, he seized the opportunity, and with hit-making producer Norrie Paramore involved, the number 1 spot became his.

Valance had been born David Spencer in 1939 in Ynysddu, Monmouthshire, Wales. He had joined the RAF aged 17, before going on to perform in clubs, and subsequently getting noticed by an A&R representative for EMI. With his sweet voice and good looks, Valance was a great choice for the label.

Tell Laura I Love Her tells the tragic tale of teenagers Tommy and Laura. Tommy wants to marry Laura, and decides to enter a stock car race, with the hope of using the prize money to buy her a wedding ring. However, the race goes horribly wrong, and Tommy is killed when his car overturns and sets alight. Lyricist Barry was a big fan of cowboy culture and originally Tommy entered a rodeo, but RCA had insisted it became a stock car to make it more in keeping with the present fashions, which was probably a wise move.

The song doesn’t get off to a great start, as the verses are rather functional and dull, and the ‘bom-bom-bom-bom’ backing vocal really ruins the mood. The chorus is great, though. Memorable and sad, it lifts an otherwise average song, and Valance’s tender voice fits it like a glove. The lyrics might seem hokey now, but that’s par for the course with this sub-genre. It pales in comparison to recent classics such as Shakin’ All Over and Apache, though.

Tell Laura I Love Her sold over a million in 1960. Although it was his only UK number 1, Movin’ Away went to the top in Australia and Scandinavia. A year later, Valance entered A Song for Europe, but only made it to third place. His name soon slipped from  the public eye, but he continued to perform on the cabaret and nostalgia circuit. Following severe depression and a nervous breakdown he became a born-again Christian, and still continues to release music.

Written by: Jeff Barry & Ben Raleigh

Producer: Norrie Paramor

Weeks at number 1: 3 (29 September-19 October)