263. The Marmalade – Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da (1969)

After a topsy-turvy 1968, we reach the final year of the decade. And for the first time since the inception of the charts, there’s a new number 1 on New Year’s Day. Psych-pop and rock five-piece the Marmalade became the first Scottish band at the top of the charts with their version of Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da by the Beatles.

The band’s history began in 1961 in east Glasgow. Originally known as the Gaylords (stop sniggering, they took the name from the street gang Chicago Gaylords), the inaugural line-up featured guitarists Pat Fairley and Billy Johnston, lead guitarist Pat McGovern, drummer Tommy Frew and singer Wattie Rodgers.

Several line-up changes ensued, most importantly the arrival of William ‘Junior’ Campbell on guitar later that year. By 1963 they were known as Dean Ford and the Gaylords, with Thomas McAleese assuming the name of the ‘star’, aping Cliff Richard and the Shadows. They signed with Columbia Records in 1964, and their first single was a cover of Chubby Checker’s Twenty Miles. They were getting lots of attention in Scotland, and following a stint in Germany in 1965, they returned with ambitions to make it big in England.

After befriending the Tremeloes they signed with their manager Peter Walsh. Performing in the clubs of swinging London in 1966, they tightened up their act and Walsh suggested they became the Marmalade, and they signed with CBS and gained hitmaking Mike Smith as their producer. Debut single, It’s All Leading Up to Saturday Night, failed to chart.

Third single, I See the Rain, featuring a nice pop-psych sound, was lauded by Jimi Hendrix as the best single of 1967. By this point, the line-up had settled down to Ford on lead vocals, Patrick Fairley on six-string bass, Campbell on guitar and keyboards, Raymond Duffy on drums and Graham Knight on bass. The Marmalade were now making waves, supporting the Pink Floyd and performing at festivals during the Summer of Love. But they still weren’t charting, and CBS were beginning to get impatient.

The Marmalade rejected Everlasting Love, which became a number 1 for Love Affair in 1968. Eventually, to get CBS off their backs, they recorded Lovin’ Things, and reached number six in the charts. Also that year they released their debut album, There’s a Lot of It About.

In late 1968 they were offered Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da by publisher Dick James. Allegedly, the band had no idea it was by Paul McCartney when they agreed. It had yet to be released on the Beatles’ eponymous double album.

McCartney wrote this bright and breezy ska-influenced ditty during the Beatles time in Rishikesh, India, earlier that year. The song’s title and chorus came from Nigerian musician Jimmy Scott. Apparently his backing band were called Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da, and in live shows he would call out ‘Ob la di’, to which the audience would respond ‘Ob la da’, and he would then conclude ‘Life goes on.’ The ‘Desmond’ of the song was inspired by rising ska star Desmond Dekker.

The fact McCartney would steal the phrase for his own means caused some consternation between he and Scott, and Scott threatened legal action until he came to an agreement with Macca to drop the case if the Beatle would pay his legal bills to get him out of Brixton Prison (he had failed to pay maintenance to his ex-wife).

John Lennon hated Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da, so it was ironic he came up with the best part of the Beatles version when he banged away on the piano in the intro in pure frustration. McCartney had planned to release their version as a single, but Lennon was having none of it. George Harrison wasn’t a fan of either, and he wasn’t singing its praises when he namechecked it on Savoy Truffle.

The Marmalade’s version is inferior from the start, ditching that piano intro and any ska influence, preferring to turn it into a jolly, soft knees-up. They even replace ‘Bra’ with ‘Woah’. You could never call the Beatles recording edgy, yet it is by comparison to this. Not different enough to be interesting in any way, it’s reminiscent of the Overlanders’ number 1 version of Michelle. The most noteworthy bit is right at the end, where, instead of singing ‘If you want some fun, take Ob-La-Di-Bla-Da’, they replace ‘fun’ with ‘jam’. Marmalade, y’see.

Like that cover, Beatles fans flocked to the record anyway, and the Marmalade were at number 1 for the first week of January, before being overtaken by 1968’s Christmas number 1, Lily the Pink, by the Scaffold, once more. The Marmalade eventually won out, with a further fortnight as top of the pops.

In November of that year they signed a lucrative deal with Decca, which meant they could write and produce their own material with no time restraints in the studio. This resulted in their biggest hit worldwide, Reflections of My Life, an unusual early prog-rock-sounding ballad, which is superior to their number 1 single.

The beginning of the end of the group’s fame came when Campbell chose to leave in 1971. The hits carried on for a while longer, including Cousin Norman and Radancer, but line-up changes came thick and fast. In 1973 they signed with EMI, and dropped the ‘The’ from their name. Apart from a hit with Falling Apart at the Seams in 1976, none of their singles charted.

During the 1980s an incarnation of Marmalade toured the nostalgia circuit, with Knight as the sole member from their heyday. Dave Dee began occasionally performing with them from 1987 until his death in 2009. Knight departed the following year. Dean Ford passed away on New Year’s Eve last year due to complications from Parkinson’s. Despite no original members, Marmalade continue to jam. Sorry.

Also in that first week of 1969, Australian media mogul and all-round nasty piece of work Rupert Murdoch purchased best-selling Sunday newspaper The News of the World on 2 January. Three days later, riots in Derry left over a hundred people injured.

On 18 January, former drummer with the Beatles, Pete Best, won his defamation lawsuit against the band. Six days later there was unrest when violent protests by students resulted in the closure of the London School of Econoics for three weeks. This resulted in the students occupying the University of London Union three days later.

Written by: John Lennon & Paul McCartney

Producer: Mike Smith

Weeks at number 1: 3 (1-7, 15-28 January)

Births:

Lawyer Mary Macleod – 4 January

Deaths:

Conjoined twin actresses Violet and Daisy Hilton – 4 January

262. The Scaffold – Lily the Pink (1968)

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Just prior to Christmas 1968, a case with tragic similarities to the murder of James Bulger in 1993 came to a close with the sentencing of 11-year-old girl Mary Bell from Newcastle upon Tyne on 17 December. In May and July that year she had murdered two young boys, one with her friend Norma Bell, who was acquitted. Bell recieved a life sentence for manslaughter. She was initially sent to the same secure unit as Jon Venables, one of Bulger’s killers. Bell was released in 1980 into anonymity.

It’s a sad irony that the number 1 of the time, and eventual Christmas number 1, was a children’s song. Lily the Pink, by Scouse comedy, poetry and music act the Scaffold, was the first novelty song to become Christmas number 1, but as detailed in Every Christmas Number 1, it was certainly not the last instance of this very British phenomenon.

The Scaffold began with the friendship of entertainer John Gorman, and musical performer Mike McCartney (younger brother of Paul). Together with poets Roger McCough and Adrian Henri they formed the revue known as the Liverpool One Fat Lady All Electric Show back in 1962.

By 1964 Henri had left and they had become the Scaffold. As they rose in popularity, McCartney changed his stage name to Mike McGear, to avoid accusations of using his brother’s name to become famous during Beatlemania. However, considering the rise in popularity of anything from Liverpool, it’s fair to say the link won’t have harmed the trio.

In 1966 they signed to Parlophone (label of the Beatles) and released their debut single 2 Days Monday, but it was their third 7″, Thank U Very Much, that first troubled the top ten. Its popularity endured into the 1980s thanks to a long-running adveritsing campaign by Cadbury’s Roses, usually at Christmas.

McGough and McGear released an eponymous album without Gorman, featuring cameos from Jimi Hendrix, Mitch Mitchell, Paul McCartney and Graham Nash, in May 1968. The Scaffold’s eponymous debut LP was released only two months later and was a live recording of mostly McGough’s poetry and McGear and Gorman’s sketches. And then came Lily the Pink.

The 1968 Christmas number 1’s origins lay in a drinking song called The Ballad of Lydia Pinkham. Pinkham was a real person, and in the 19th century she invented and marketed a herbal-alcoholic women’s tonic for menstrual and menopausal issues. She was ridiculed at the time, but the drink still exists in an altered form to this day. Versions of the ballad were doing the rounds as far back as World War 1, with lyrics poking fun at Pinkham’s drink and its alleged uses.

The Scaffold’s version had completely rewritten lyrics by McGough, Gorman and McGear, adding a cast of unusual characters to make it more child-friendly, and also in-keeping with psychedelia, with the tune sounding reminscent of the Victorian music hall. The characters they described were largely in-jokes – ‘Mr Frears has sticky out ears’ refers to Stephen Frears, who had once worked with the trio and is now one of the most highly regarded film directors in the UK. ‘Jennifer Eccles had terrible freckles’ came from the song Jennifer Eccles by the Hollies.

Speaking of which, Graham Nash provided backing vocals, along with Elton John (still Reg Dwight at the time) and Tim Rice, and that’s Jack Bruce from Cream on bass.

I remember Lily the Pink from childhood, and I enjoyed it back then. It’s bloody irritating now, though, and the in-jokes, probably only funny to the Scaffold and a few others at the time, are not funny at all now. The chorus will, sadly, stay with you forever. And ever. And then just when you think Lily has died and gone to heaven, she comes back to haunt you forevermore. The bit where the chorus comes back after she’s died is good fun though, I’ll give them that. Incidentally, it was produced by Norrie Paramor, formerly responsible for Cliff Richard and Frank Ifield. This was his 27th, and (I think) final number 1.

In 1969 the Scaffold recorded their memorable theme tune to Carla Lane’s long-running BBC sitcom The Liver Birds. The following year they were given their own children’s series, Score with the Scaffold. With the advent of decimalisation, the trio were responsible for providing tunes for a series of five-minute programmes to explain how the system would work. That same year, they teamed up with collaborator Andy Roberts (I’ve had a drink with Roberts, and he’s a bloody nice bloke with some great stories, he’s also in one of my favourite sketches of all time, here.) Vivian Stanshall and Neil Innes of the defunct Bonzo Dog Band and various waifs and strays to form Grimms.

As Grimms toured up and down the country the Scaffold continued. They had their first hit since Lily the Pink with Liverpool Lou, recorded with Wings, in 1974. Although there may have been tension after McGear left Grimms due to a bust-up with Brian Patten, the Scaffold parted amicably in 1977, although there have been brief reunions here and there since.

Following a few more singles in the early 80s, McGear retired from music, reverted to his family name and became a photographer and author. Gorman was a regular on Tiswas and the adult version OTT until the early 80s, when he moved into theatre. McGough has remained in the public eye, and is considered a national treasure thanks to his children’s poetry.

After three weeks at number 1, Lily the Pink was overtaken by the Marmalade’s cover of the Beatles’ Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da, but only a week later it returned to the top of the hit parade again for a further week.

On its last day, 14 January, Sir Matt Busby, legendary manager of Manchester United FC for 24 years, through good times and tragic times, announced his retirement.

1968 had been a particularly unusual and random year for number 1s. The decade was nearly over, and by the time we get to the end of 1969, the Beatles and Rolling Stones will have had their last number 1s.

Written by: John Gorman, Mike McGear & Roger McGough

Producer: Norrie Paramor

Weeks at number 1: 4 (11-31 December 1968, 8-14 January 1969)

Births:

Race car driver Phil Andrews – 20 December
Scottish field hockey player Pauline Robertson – 28 December
Author David Mitchell – 12 January
Scottish snooker player Stephen Hendry – 13 January 

Deaths:

Welsh poet David James Jones – 14 December
Athlete Albert Hill – 8 January
Writer Richmal Crompton – 11 January 

230. Engelbert Humperdinck – Release Me (1967)

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Spring, 1967 saw one man sitting atop the charts. For seven weeks Engelbert Humperdinck was number 1 with Release Me. It was the year’s biggest seller, and famously, was the first song to prevent the Beatles from reaching number 1 since 1963. But before I go into that, what else was happening in the UK over those six weeks?

On 4 March the first North Sea gas was pumped ashore at Easington, East Riding. That same day, Queens Park Rangers became the first Third Division side to win the League Cup when they beat West Bromwich Albion 3-2 at Wembley Stadium. Supertanker SS Torrey Canyon ran aground between Land’s End and the Scilly Isles, creating the biggest oil spill in the world at the time, and it remains the biggest in UK history. At the Astoria Theatre in Finsbury Park, London on 31 March, guitar legend Jimi Hendrix set fire to his instrument for the first time. He was taken to hospital afterwards for burns to his hands. As he had superhuman axeman powers, it didn’t put him off doing it time and time again.

Norwell Roberts made history on 3 April, becoming the first black officer for the Metropolitan Police Service. Five days later the Grand National was won by 100-1 outsider Foinavon, and Sandie Shaw became the first singer to have an English-language entry win the Eurovision Song Contest, with Puppet on a String. It would soon become her third and final number 1. And as Humperdinck’s reign finally began to end, Tom Stoppard’s play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead received it’s premier at the Old Vic in London.

So, Release Me. This shouldn’t have come as a surprise to me after blogging so many hits of the time, but it wasn’t Humperdinck’s song originally. It was first written in 1949 by country music singer-songwriters Eddie Harris and Robert Yount, with James Pebworth also receiving a confusing third of the royalties. Confusing, because over the years he used several different pseudonyms that often cropped up on various versions, sometimes even two at once. Harris recorded the first version, but it was Ray Price who made it a hit for the first time in 1954. Then along came Humperdinck. Who was this bizarrely named singer?

It won’t come as a surprise to find out it’s not his real name. He was born Arnold George Dorsey in May 1936. One of ten children, he spent his first decade living in Madras, British India (now Chennai), before the Dorseys moved to the less exotic Leicester. Interested in music from a young age, he learnt the saxophone and would play it in nightclubs, and apparently didn’t attempt to sing live until he was 17, when his friends persuaded him to enter a pub contest. His impression of Jerry Lee Lewis earned him the name Gerry Dorsey, which he used for nearly a decade.

Dorsey’s career was interrupted by National Service, and he made his first recordings after being discharged with Decca Records in 1958. He failed to make his mark.

That all changed in 1965 when he teamed up with his old roommate Gordon Mills. Mills was Tom Jones’s manager, and was the one who came up with his name change. He reckoned he could do the same for Dorsey, and suggested ‘Engelbert Humperdinck’. Humperdinck was a German composer in the 19th century, and among his works was Hansel and Gretel. Quite why Mills thought this would be a reasonable name is unknown to me. At least ‘Tom Jones’ had been in the public eye at the time, having been the name of a big film.

Humperdinck signed a new contract with Decca under his new stage name, and things picked up when he started to do well in Europe, entering the Knokke song contest and having a hit in Belgium with Dommage, Dommage. Around this time he visited German songwriter Bert Kaempfert, and became keen on Strangers in the Night. He recorded it and wanted it released as a single, but Frank Sinatra got there first.

Fortune finally smiled on Humperdinck when Dickie Valentine fell ill and had to miss an appearance on Sunday Night at the London Palladium. He sang Release Me, and had rave reviews. Soon, his recording was at the top of the charts, and it held firm.

I thought that overfamiliarity with Release Me would make listening to it a waste of time, but there were a couple of surprises. For one, it was a lot slower than I remembered, but I think my brain had somehow replaced it with the version used on BBC Two Nineties comedy The Fast Show – a version which at least had some flair. Humperdinck’s version isn’t half dreary to begin with. Charles Blackwell’s production makes it all sound a little too slick, and doesn’t really give off the impression that Humperdinck is dying to move on from his partner (hard to believe it was produced by the man behind Come Outside). But I have to admit I was impressed with his singing in the latter half. He has a great voice, you have to give him that, and he does sound pretty anguished during that final run through the chorus. Apparently Humperdinck didn’t like being referred to as a crooner, because he felt his range was better than that, and I wouldn’t argue with him.

I can’t dislike Release Me as much as many Beatles fans do. Obviously it didn’t deserve to keep Penny Lane/Strawberry Fields Forever from number 1, but it’s by far the worst number 1 I’ve heard, and there’s far worse to come. I like the lyrics too. Although the track is nearly 20 years old by this point, I can’t imagine it was easy to come by songs that hinted at separation and divorce back then. You’re only hearing one side of the argument, true, but you can’t help feeling some degree of empathy.

But, like Tears and Distant Drums in the two years previous, just why did this become so huge? And why does the list of 1967 number 1s feature lots of lengthy stints at the top, and from safer material than the previous few years? I think, perhaps, that things got a little too weird for many record buyers, and particularly the older ones. Whereas many of the number 1s of 1965 and 1966 still had commercial appeal, even if they were breaking new ground too. And so there was a return to the safe, slick world of easy listening and light-entertainment-style pop. Humperdinck was also a heart-throb, unlike Ken Dodd and Jim Reeves, so that will have helped him somewhat as well.

It wasn’t just Release Me that had a lasting impact – even the B-side left its mark. Ten Guitars was so popular in New Zealand, it’s considered the unofficial national anthem.

And so, as some of the greatest rock bands of all time prepared to release albums that would go down in history as 20th-century classics, an amusingly-named warbler who had struggled for years was the biggest singer in the UK with an easy listening cover of an old country song. And he had another chart-topper before the year was out, too.

Written by: Eddie Miller, James Pebworth & Robert Yount

Producer: Charles Blackwell

Weeks at number 1: 6 (2 March-12 April) *BEST-SELLING SINGLE OF THE YEAR*

Births:

Director Sam Taylor-Johnson – 4 March
Scottish actor John Barrowman – 11 March
Race walker Lisa Langford – 15 March
Lush singer Miki Berenyi – 18 March
Director Kwame Kwei-Armah – 24 March
Presenter Helen Chamberlain – 2 April

Deaths:

Author John Haden Bradley – 6 March 

 

172. The Animals – The House of the Rising Sun (1964)

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It may have only spent a week at number 1, but the Animals’ The House of the Rising Sun‘s impact was huge. It ushered in a new genre, folk rock, inspired Bob Dylan to go electric, and proved a hit single could be twice as long as was expected.

The origins of this traditional folk tale, whose author is unknown, date back hundreds of years. It shares a similar theme to the 16th-century ballad The Unfortunate Rake. Originally, the song was written from the perspective of a prostitute who worked at a brothel called the Rising Sun, with the oldest published lyrics (from 1925) beginning:

‘There is a house in New Orleans, it’s called the Rising Sun
It’s been the ruin of many a poor girl
Great God, and I for one’

The earliest recording, known as Rising Sun Blues, was performed by Clarence “Tom” Ashley and Gwen Foster in 1928. Later versions came from Woody Guthrie in 1941, Lead Belly in 1944 and 1948 (entitled In New Orleans and The House of the Rising Sun respectively), Joan Baez in 1960 and Nina Simone in 1962.

The version by the Animals most closely resembles Bob Dylan’s cover for his eponymous debut album in 1962. This is the first and certainly not the last time we’ll encounter Robert Zimmerman, who has never scored his own number 1 but whose songs have topped the charts several times over the years. However, Dylan had swiped his arrangement too, from fellow folk revivalist Dave Van Ronk. An unusually sheepish Dylan asked Ronk if he was okay with him recording it, and Van Ronk asked him to hold off as he was about to go into the studio to record it himself. Dylan then admitted he had already recorded it.

The Animals formed when singer Eric Burdon joined the Alan Price Rhythm and Blues Combo, who had been a unit since 1958. Making up the rest of the band were Alan Price on organ and keyboards, Hilton Valentine on guitar, Bryan ‘Chas’ Chandler on bass and John Steel on drums. It’s usually believed that their new name came from their wild stage act, but in 2013 Burdon claimed they used their name by way of tribute to a mutual friend known as ‘Animal’ Hogg. They moved to London in 1964 in the wake of Beatlemania to get signed, and subsequently did, to EMI Columbia. They specialised in heavy versions of R’n’B numbers, and their first single, Baby Let Me Take You Home narrowly missed out on the top 20. According to Burdon, the Animals first heard The House of the Rising Sun in a Newcastle club, sung by Northumbrian folk singer Johnny Handle. They were touring with Chuck Berry, and were searching for a number to close their sets with that would make them stand out from other groups. It’s doubtful they realised they had stumbled upon their sole chart-topper.

Producer Mickie Most certainly didn’t realise. Most made a name for himself as a producer of  many hit singles over the 1960s and 70s, and clearly had an ear for a good tune. And really, who could blame him for thinking The House of the Rising Sun was too long and not commercial enough?

It took only 15 minutes and one take in a tiny studio to record one of the decade’s most memorable number 1s. Valentine’s spine-tingling arpeggio intro, in which he plays Dylan’s chord sequence but on an electric guitar, is one of the greatest openings to a song of all time. Then Burdon’s deep growl begins, and the rest is history. Some have argued that the lyric change to make it about a man with a gambling addiction make the theme of the song less interesting, and they have a point, but really, all should be forgiven during this tour de force.

No number 1 had ever stayed stuck in one groove before, and certainly not for over four minutes (previously the record for the longest duration for a number 1 belonged to Harry Belafonte’s Mary’s Boy Child in 1957; the Animals would hold the record until the Beatles’ Hey Jude in 1968). The feeling is hypnotic and relentless, particularly during the second half when the band take it up a notch and Price goes to town on his Vox Continental. I can imagine the impact of hearing this back then must have been similar to the birth of skiffle, where Lonnie Donegan had plundered old tunes and added an intensity that had rarely been heard up to that point. By the time they had finished, Most was a believer. Despite the fact the whole band contributed to the arrangement, there was only room for one name on the record label, and as Alan Price’s forename was first alphabetically, he got the credit. This would later cause resentment, as Valentine understandably thought he should receive royalties for his part.

Two months after hitting pole position in the UK charts, The House of the Rising Sun spent three weeks at number 1 in the US, becoming the first bestseller during the British Invasion to be unconnected to the Beatles. Upon hearing it on his car radio, Bob Dylan immediately stopped driving, got out and banged on the bonnet. He was blown away, and a seed had been planted.

The Animals went on to have more great hits, including We Gotta Get Out of This Place and Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood. In May 1965 Alan Price left to go solo, citing personal and musical differences and a reluctance to fly while on tour. He formed the Alan Price Set, whose highlights include Simon Smith and His Amazing Dancing Bear. Dave Rowberry became his replacement, but by the end of the year the group were already falling apart. The history books are full of bands who got a raw deal due to mismanagement, but the Animals had suffered more than most. In 1966 Burdon formed a new backing group and they became known as Eric Burdon & the Animals, adopting a harder psychedelic sound and relocating to California. He also later formed the funk band War in the following decade. Meanwhile, Chas Chandler became Jimi Hendrix’s manager and producer and was an integral part of his success, before doing the same with Slade in the 70s. The original line-up of the Animals reformed in 1968, 1975 and 1983, and several different versions of the band using that name have existed over the years.

The Animals stood out in 1964 for refusing to play the game and adopt the Merseybeat approach. They didn’t turn on the charm, and they didn’t smile for the cameras. Another group were rising up the charts, and their fame would soon eclipse that of the Animals. The Rolling Stones were about to have their first number 1.

Written by: Traditional (arranged by Alan Price)

Producer: Mickie Most

Weeks at number 1: 1 (9-15 July)

Births:

Pocket cartoonist Matt Pritchett – 14 July