260. Joe Cocker – With a Little Help from My Friends (1968)

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Following six weeks at number 1, Mary Hopkin’s Those Were the Days was finally forced down the charts by the third chart-topper in a row with a Beatles connection. There are millions of covers of Beatles songs, but Sheffield singer Joe Cocker’s take on With a Little Help from My Friends still ranks as one of the more famous ones.

John Cocker was born in Crookes, a town in the South Yorkshire city, in May 1944. The origins of his nickname and future stage name are unclear due to differing family stories – Joe was either a local window cleaner or it stemmed from a childhood game he would play called Cowboy Joe.

As a boy he loved soul and skiffle, with Ray Charles and Lonnie Donegan among his heroes. He got the bug for performing when he made his stage debut aged just 12, after being invited up by his older brother Victor to perform with his skiffle group. At the age of 16 in 1960 he formed his first group, the Cavaliers, with three friends. A year later they split up and Cocker left school to become an apprentice gasfitter for the East Midlands Gas Board. But he wasn’t going to give up on his music dreams.

In 1961 he took on the stage name Vance Arnold and with the Avengers as his backing group, they would perform soul and blues covers in the pubs of Sheffield. In 1963 they supported the Rolling Stones at the City Hall, but with the big time beckoning, they split up and he decided to venture forth solo as Joe Cocker.

Cocker’s first single was released in 1964, and with Beatlemania in full effect, he hoped his cover of I’ll Cry Instead, with Jimmy Page and Big Jim Sullivan on guitars, would get him attention, but despite a pretty decent stab at it, it wasn’t that different from the original, which wasn’t one of Lennon and McCartney’s better songs, and it flopped. The raw vocal theatrics were in their formative stages, listening back. He showed promise, but was disheartened by the setback. Other than a short-lived new group, Joe Cocker’s Blues Band, he disappeared from music for a while.

In 1966 he returned with his new group, the Grease Band. Performing once more in local pubs, he got the attention of Denny Cordell, producer for Procol Harum, the Moody Blues and Georgie Fame. The singer went down to London and recorded a new single, Marjorine. The Grease Band was quickly dissolved. When it came to recording his next Beatles cover, somebody took the decision to adopt a very different approach, and it paid off big time.

As the whole world knows, the original With a Little Help from My Friends was track two on the Beatles’ psychedelic opus, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Ringo Starr, never the world’s greatest singer, would often get a country-western or novelty track on their albums in which to showcase his vocal talent… but Lennon and McCartney were clever this time around, using Starr’s charm and his poor singing skills to their advantage. Originally it was called Bad Finger Boogie, as Lennon composed the basic tune with his middle finger after damaging his forefinger (the band Badfinger took their name from this). The finished product, a (by 1967) rare joint effort between its songwriters, was a charming pop ditty that captured the spirit of the times. When it came to recording his version, this time Cocker took the Beatles into a different realm.

For me, if you’re going to cover a song, you should try and add something different, otherwise, why bother? It’s clear from the solemn opening organ that this is a very different beast. We then get some stinging guitar from future Led Zeppelin member Jimmy Page. Before starting this blog, I had no idea how many number 1s Page had featured on during his time as a session musician. It then settles down before star of the show Cocker starts showcasing his raspy, guttural singing, with backing vocals from Sue and Sunny, who later became members of Brotherhood of Man. Stretching out for just over five minutes, it’s the third lengthy number 1 in a row, and ends with the band and singer in an intense display of passion.

Cocker’s soul-rock version seems to divide opinion. I can understand critics who dislike this number 1, who don’t like the histrionics and earnestness and prefer the original. It’s horses for courses really, and I’ve room in my heart for both, they’re so different.

With a Little Help from My Friends catapulted Cocker to stardom. Although it was only number 1 for a week, it was a strong chart presence for much longer. Cocker put together a new version of the Grease Band to back him, which featured Henry McCullogh from Spooky Tooth, later to briefly be a member of Wings. 1969 began with Cocker’s first tour of the US, with his debut album, also called With a Little Help from My Friends released at the same time. He made his mark with his appearance at Woodstock Festival that August. The image of him swaying spasmodically, lost in the music in his tie-dye t-shirt and playing air guitar, is truly iconic.

Straight after Woodstock his second album, Joe Cocker! featured further Beatles covers Something and She Came in Through the Bathroom Window. As the 1970s began he broke up the Grease Band and formed a much larger group. More than 20 musicians became known as Mad Dogs & Englishmen, and adopted a heavier, bluesier sound. As they toured the US, the riotous parties that ensued took their toll, and despite his first US top ten success with a cover of The Letter, Cocker became an alcoholic. Knowing things were getting out of hand, he took a few years off.

Unfortunately his hellraising ways returned in 1972. He was arrested for marijuana possession in Adelaide and only a day later in Melbourne he recieved assault charges for a hotel brawl. Cocker was given 48 hours to leave the country. He added heroin to his list of vices, and although he was able to quit it, his alcohol intake worsened and by 1974 he was throwing up on stage. And yet he was still drawing crowds, and his cover of Billy Preston’s You Are So Beautiful became one of his most famous hits. Drink and money problems would be constant thorns in his side for the rest of the decade. He ended the 70s on a ‘Woodstock in Europe’ tour to celebrate its tenth anniversary.

The early 80s saw a comeback, however, thanks in large part to Up Where We Belong, his power ballad duet with Jennifer Warnes for the romantic drama An Officer and a Gentleman (1982). It was his first UK top ten hit in 13 years, a number 1 in the US, and it also garnered Academy and Grammy Awards. Cocker continued to succeed with movie soundtrack work – his cover of You Can Leave Your Hat On, used in the striptease scene of 1986 adult drama 9½ Weeks, earned him another Grammy nomination. The title track of his 1987 album, Unchain My Heart, was also a hit.

In the 90s he featured on the hit soundtrack to romantic drama The Bodyguard (1992) and was one of the few acts from the Woodstock Festival to perform at Woodstock ’94.

At the Golden Jubilee concert at Buckingham Palace in 2002 he performed his number 1 with Phil Collins on drums and Brian May playing guitar. Cocker then starred in minor roles in the Beatles-inspired musical Across the Universe in 2007. His last album, Fire It Up, was released in 2012. Sadly, years of drinking and heavy smoking finally caught up with the Sheffield star in 2014, and Cocker died from lung cancer on 22 December, aged 70.

To children growing up in the 80s and 90s like me, With a Little Help from My Friends may have a special place in their hearts because of its use as the theme tune to US coming-of-age TV series The Wonder Years. The song has been number 1 twice since, with versions by Wet Wet Wet in 1988 and Sam & Mark in 2004. Both adopted the Beatles approach, and neither are a patch on Cocker’s vocal tour-de-force.

Written by: John Lennon & Paul McCartney

Producer: Denny Cordell

Weeks at number 1: 1 (6-12 November)

Births:

Singer Steve Brookstein – 10 November

220. Chris Farlowe – Out of Time (1966)

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Sporting history was made on 30 July 1966 at Wembley Stadium, as we all know, when England defeated West Germany 4-2 to lift the Jules Rimet World Cup for the only time to date, with a hat-trick from Geoff Hurst – the only instance of one in a World Cup final to date, and another goal from Martin Peters. 32.30 million people saw it on television across the country, making it still the most-watched event ever on UK TV.

Appropriately enough for West Germany, the number 1 at the time was Out of Time. It was credited to Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, and originally released by the Rolling Stones in April that year on their album Aftermath. This brilliantly bitter and spiteful track aimed at an ex-partner was then covered by blues and soul singer Chris Farlowe, and it was his version that hit the top of the pops that summer.

Farlowe was born John Henry Deighton in October 1940. Raised in Islington, North London, he was a big fan of skiffle legend Lonnie Donegan as a teenager, and formed the John Henry Skiffle Group in 1957. He began the group as their guitarist as well as singer, but gave up the guitar to focus on his vocal talent. A year later he joined the Johnny Burns Rhythm and Blues Quartet, and around this time he took the name Chris Farlowe, in tribute to bop guitarist Tal Farlow. In 1959 he teamed up with a rock’n’roll group called the Thunderbirds and together they built up a reputation as a formidable live act and began to concentrate on an R’n’B sound. Unfortunately they couldn’t translate gig popularity into chart success. Among the members of Farlowe’s backing band were future star guitarist Albert Lee.

Farlowe eventually jumped ship to Rolling Stones producer Andrew Loog Oldham’s Immediate Records label, which proved a canny move, as in January 1966 he was in the top 40 with Think, a Jagger and Richards track which they later chose to re-record for Aftermath.

Opening with the arch string arrangement of Arthur Greenslade, Farlowe’s version of Out of Time beats the Stones original. Fans of the band may strongly disagree, but to me, the Aftermath recording is too long, and rather empty-sounding. Brian Jones’s marimba is an interesting sound in a pop song, but it’s not enough to hold my interest for over five minutes, and it can’t beat Greenslade’s work. Plus, it’s Jagger at the mixing desk for the production anyway, who clearly thought his song would make for a great pop hit. He was right.

Jagger’s sarcastic, disdainful vocal on Aftermath is excellent, but Farlowe edges it with a gutsy, bluesy performance. There’s an element of glee in the way he encourages the listener to join in with the chorus, which as well as ramping up the pop, makes the nastiness of the lyric that much nastier. This woman must have really treated the protagonist like shit, to be treated so badly afterwards.

There’s an all-star cast at work on Farlowe’s recording. In addition to Jagger and Greenslade (who later did the fantastic arrangement on Je t’aime… moi non plus a year later), there’s session guitarists Joe Moretti and Jimmy Page. Moretti, the man behind the classic guitar sound of Shakin’ All Over, contributes some lovely Spanish-sounding licks. Andy White, who played on the album version of Love Me Do, is the man behind that great aggressive drumming along with the strings.

The Stones-Farlowe connection continued, with further covers of Paint It Black and (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction. His second most notable single was Handbags and Gladrags in 1968. Written by Manfred Mann’s Mike d’Abo especially for him, it’s now best known as the theme tune to the BBC sitcom The Office.

His time as a pop star came to an end by the time the 1970s began, and Farlowe joined jazz-rock group Colosseum in 1970, recording a couple of albums. In 1972 he became a member of rock group Atomic Rooster, consisting of former members of the Crazy World of Arthur Brown, including future prog-rock giant Carl Palmer (although he had left by the time Farlowe joined). Later he provided vocals for the last series of BBC drama Gangsters in 1978. In the 80s, Page, by now a post-Led Zeppelin rock legend, returned the favour of his Out of Time appearance by giving Farlowe appearances on his soundtrack to Death Wish II (1982) and solo album Outrider in 1988. As of 2019, Farlowe still records and performs live.

Out of Time was released as a single by the Rolling Stones in the 70s – but it wasn’t their Aftermath version. Controversial former manager Allen Klein owned their pre-1971 back catalogue, and supervised a bastardised version in which the backing music to Farlowe’s single was married to a vocal that Jagger had recorded as a demo guide for Farlowe. It was included on his 1975 compilation of Rolling Stones outtakes, Metamorphosis, and is better than it deserves to be.

Other covers down the years have come from the Bee Gees in 1966, Del Shannon in 1981, the Ramones in 1994, and the Manic Street Preachers in 2002. This most recent version is particularly good and apes the Farlowe version well, right down to the Beach Boys-esque backing vocal.

Written by: Mick Jagger & Keith Richards

Producer: Mick Jagger

Weeks at number 1: 1 (28 July-3 August)

Births:

Rugby player Paul Loughlin – 28 July

146. Jet Harris and Tony Meehan – Diamonds (1963)

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Just under a month after Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell’s shock death, the party elected 46-year-old Huyton MP Harold Wilson as its new leader. Gaitskell had moved the party to the right, but Wilson was more left wing, and had made an unsuccessful challenge for leadership in November 1960. He defeated George Brown and James Callaghan to become Leader of the Opposition just as the Government was weakening, and things would soon become even worse for Macmillan.

In the music world, the Shadows suffered the embarrassment of being knocked from number 1 by their old rhythm section, when Dance On! was replaced after a week by Jet Harris and Tony Meehan’s Diamonds. This instrumental was written by Jerry Lordan, the man behind the two best Shadows number 1s, Apache and Wonderful Land.

Harris, born Terence Harris in Willesden, North West London in July 1939, earned the nickname ‘Jet’ due to his sprinting prowess at school. He went on to play skiffle in the Vipers before joining the Drifters, and it was Harris that suggested they become the Shadows to avoid legal issues with the soul group. As well as being one of the first UK musicians to play an electric bass, he also provided vocals for the group on their own songs and those of Cliff Richard. Harris married in 1959, but they separated within years, and he later attributed the start of his depression and alcohol problems to his ex-wife’s affair with Cliff. His waywardness and arguments with rhythm guitarist Bruce Welch led to him leaving the group. Other than Hank Marvin, Harris was the only real Shadow with frontman material due to his moody charisma and good looks, so Decca took him on as a solo artist, and he had success with covers of Besame Mucho and The Man with the Golden Arm. From there, he crossed paths once more with Tony Meehan.

Meehan, known in the music business as ‘The Baron’, was born Daniel Meehan in March 1943, and was also raised in Willesden. He became interested in drums aged ten, and was in a band at 13, first meeting Harris in the Vipers. Meehan had his own unique style that proved influential to many. Mick Fleetwood from Fleetwood Mac was inspired to become a drummer after seeing him perform in The Young Ones (1961). Depending on who you believe, in October 1961 Meehan either left the Shadows of his own accord to work with Joe Meek, or was sacked for tardiness. Only a few months later he had moved on to Decca, and during this time was involved in the Beatles auditioning for the label. He was unconvinced they were going to get anywhere.

As I mentioned in my previous blog, replacing Harris and Meehan with two men called Brian seemed to take away what little element of surprise and danger there was in the Shadows, and this theory is borne out by comparing Dance On! to Diamonds. There’s a lot crammed into the Harris and Meehan track, from Harris’s signature moody bass, to an outbreak of brass, and best of all Meehan’s scattershot drums – the most exciting and loudest drums we’ve heard on a number 1 yet (no doubt due to the drummer also being the producer). While you could argue it doesn’t all hang together so well, there’s no shortage of ideas, and Diamonds winds up sounding like the theme to some early-60s gangster drama.

Harris and Meehan, buoyed by their number 1 achievement, released further top ten hits Scarlett O’Hara and Applejack. and future Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones joined them for some live shows (it’s also heavily rumoured that Jimmy Page plays acoustic guitar on Diamonds). However, the duo split following Harris and girlfriend Billie Davis’s car crash. The injured Harris refused to promote Applejack, leaving poor Meehan to mime. He attempted a comeback with the Jet Harris Band in 1966, and was briefly in the Jeff Beck Group in 1967, but it was downhill from there, and the only time he made it into the newspapers was in reports of his drunken behaviour or misdemeanours. In 1988 he was declared bankrupt, and his old friend Cliff (Christian guilt for supposedly contributing to Harris’s alcoholism all those years ago?) helped him out by letting him and Meehan on stage to help perform Move It at his big concert at Wembley, The Event in 1989. He gave up drink and joined the nostalgia circuit, finding some peace with himself. Unfortunately he couldn’t give up smoking heavily, and he died of cancer in March 2011.

Meehan remained on good terms with the Shadows, and briefly returned to the group when Brian Bennett was in hospital. He quit music in the 90s and became a psychology lecturer. Sadly he died after falling down the stairs to his flat in November 2005.

Written by: Jerry Lordan

Producer: Tony Meehan

Weeks at number 1: 3 (31 January-20 February)

Births:

Actor Phillip Glenister – 10 February 
Long jumper John King – 13 February
Mountain climber Alison Hargreaves – 17 February 
Singer Seal – 19 February