247. The Beatles – Lady Madonna (1968)

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April Fool’s Day 1968 saw the formation of Thames Valley Police due to the amalgamation of Berkshire Constabulary, Buckingham Constabulary, Oxford City Police, Oxford Constabulary and Reading Borough Police. Six days later, Scottish Formula One driver Jim Clark shocked the racing world when he was killed in an accident in Hockenheim, West Germany. Still considered one of the greatest drivers in F1, Clark was only 32 when he died.

The Beatles were at number 1 for the 15th time with the back-to-basics sound of Lady Madonna. Still smarting from the poor reception of the Magical Mystery Tour film, which went over the heads of the average television viewer on Boxing Day 1967, the Fab Four began 1968 by filming their cameo appearance at the end of the animated movie Yellow Submarine, released six months later.

Despite the relative failure of Magical Mystery Tour, they were still ruling the charts with Hello, Goodbye when Paul McCartney first unveiled Lady Madonna to some friends he had visited with girlfriend Jane Asher around Christmas time. As usual, the Beatles were ahead of the curve by perhaps sensing that psychedelia could soon be in danger of becoming predictable. Now even the Rolling Stones were ripping off Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Why not replace studio trickery with a blast from the past?

Lady Madonna was McCartney returning to the boogie-woogie rock’n’roll of his youth. The piano lick was inspired (I’d say stolen) from jazzman Humphrey Lyttelton’s Bad Penny Blues. The single, released on Parlophone in 1956, had been the first jazz song to reach the UK top 20, and was produced by Joe Meek. Playing around with his voice, McCartney also found his new song reminiscent of Fats Domino, and so he would make his voice deeper and bluesier by way of tribute. There was a further link back to 1956 here – Domino had a hit in 1956 with a version of Blue Monday (not the New Order classic), in which he sang of the plight of the working man, taking it a day at a time.

McCartney chose a similar lyrical approach, only he chose to do it from a working class, possibly single, mother’s perspective. John Lennon helped out with the lyrics, but it was mainly all McCartney, who years later said the title of the song was inspired by a photograph he saw in National Geographic of a woman breastfeeding, entitled ‘Mountain Madonna’. One lyric however, is unmistakably Lennon – ‘See how they run’ was lifted from I Am the Walrus. The Beatles were going through a phase of referencing earlier songs in newer material, something which would help inspire the ‘Paul Is Dead’ conspiracy. A clever way of using your back catalogue, or a sign of the creative well beginning to dry? Possibly a bit of both.

With little in the way of new material, The Beatles decided they needed to release a single as a stop-gap in the spring, while they attended a Trancendental Meditation course with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in Rishikesh, India. Lady Madonna’s only competition at the time was Lennon’s whistful Across the Universe. This beautiful version would eventually surface with animal noises overdubbed in December 1969 on the World Wildlife Fund’s compilation No One’s Gonna Change Our World. Often Lennon would put up a fight for his own material to be the A-side, but this time he knew Lady Madonna was a stronger commercial track, even though he felt it didn’t really go anywhere, and he even relented from taking the B-side, giving George Harrison the slot for the first time with the mystic The Inner Light.

The single was completed fast, with John, Paul, George and Ringo finishing up in just two sessions on 3 and 6 February. At the first session McCartney laid down the piano, with advice from producer George Martin on how to replicate the Bad Penny Blues sound, and Starr accompanied him on snare drum, playing with brushes. Lennon and Harrison then added identical distorted guitar riffs. Then, McCartney overdubbed his bass, with Starr on full drumkit, plus McCartney recorded his vocal and Lennon and Harrison joined him on backing vocals. Studio experimentation hadn’t been completely abandoned – for the instrumental break, they decided to impersonate the Mills Brothers, who would replicate brass instruments with their voices, and simply blew into their cupped hands.

The second session was organised at short notice after the Beatles realised they needed something extra. They quickly assembled a four-piece horn section, which included famous jazz musician and club owner Ronnie Scott on tenor saxophone. So hastily arranged was the session, the band neglected to tell the horn section what to play, which explains why Scott’s solo in the break sounds so pissed off.

Lady Madonna is unlikely to rank as anyone’s favourite Beatles single, but it does have vim and vigour. Starr is in fine fettle, laying down a simple but effectively thunderous beat. Lennon had a point in saying it didn’t really go anywhere, and the lyrics seem rather tossed off, and even, when McCartney sings ‘Did you think that money was heaven sent?’, rather patronising. Perhaps it wasn’t the point McCartney was trying to make, as he sounds sympathetic on the whole, but there is an element of ‘will this do?’ again about the lyrics. Whether that’s because Lennon was still too high to be bothered to contribute much and/or rein in Macca’s excesses, or it’s a sign that they were starting to care less about the band, we’ll never know.

Luckily, McCartney still had a bloody good ear for a melody, and Lady Madonna is very easy to enjoy when you hear it. But how often do you deliberately choose to listen to it? I’m not sure I ever have.

Two promos were filmed for Lady Madonna, with Tony Bramwell joining them at Abbey Road on 11 February to record them miming to the track. There was a change of plan though, and instead they were filmed while they recorded Lennon’s bluesy rocker Hey Bulldog, which ended up on the Yellow Submarine soundtrack.

Despite the relative lack of care given to Lady Madonna, their final single for Parlophone quickly climbed to the top within a few weeks of its release in March. However, it didn’t go to number 1 in the US, signalling that perhaps their influence was declining somewhat. Or maybe not – once again, the Beatles were at the forefront of popular culture, and other high-profile acts like the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan and Elvis Presley all deciding a return to their musical roots was the way forward.

Written by: John Lennon & Paul McCartney

Producer: George Martin

Weeks at number 1: 2 (27 March-9 April)

Births:

Cricketer Nasser Hussain – 28 March
Television presenter Jenny Powell – 8 April

Deaths:

Scottish race car driver Jim Clark – 7 April 

246. Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Tich – The Legend of Xanadu (1968)

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Somewhat lost almong the crowd of well-remembered 1960s groups, Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Tich were, despite their silly name, one very popular outfit, with many top ten hits in the latter half of the decade. After three years of hits they finally reached number 1 on 20 March with The Legend of Xanadu, knocking Cinderella Rockefeller from the top, which must have been a relief to anyone with any sense.

The quintet formed in 1961 in Salisbury, Wiltshire from the ashes of Ronnie Blonde and the Beatnicks. David John Harman had been a policeman after leaving school, and was the first on the scene in April 1960 when Eddie Cochran was killed in a car crash (see Three Steps to Heaven). Cochran’s Gretsch guitar was impounded at his police station, and he started learning to play guitar on it over several nights. He had been friends with bassist Trevor Davies, and rhythm guitarist John Dymond and lead guitarist Ian Amey since school. Harman teamed up with them in the Beatnicks and when Blonde missed a gig, he filled in on vocals. Eventually he took over permanently and the group became Dave Dee & the Bostons. By this time Michael Wilson had become their drummer and the line-up was complete.

Struggling to make ends meet, they began performing in Hamburg at the same clubs as the Beatles, and lengthy (sometimes 12-hour) sets turned the boys into a tight unit, playing rock’n’roll with intricate four-part harmonies. In 1964 they returned to England and took on a summer season at Butlins in Clacton-on-Sea. One night they supported the Honeycombs in Swindon. The Honeycombs had just been at number 1 with the proto-punk Have I the Right?, written by Ken Howard and Alan Blaikley and produced by Joe Meek. Howard and Blaikley managed the Honeycombs and Blaikley watched the support act that night. Suitably impressed, he and Howard took them under their wing and arranged a session with Meek.

It was they that changed the group’s name. They wanted their new group to stand out from all the other beat groups storming the charts, and so decided to simply name them after each member’s nickname. Harman was already Dave Dee. Davies became Dozy (apparently because he once ate the wrapper of a chocolate bar instead of the chocolate, after throwing the bar away…), Dymond was Beaky, Wilson was Mick and Amey became Tich.

The band clashed with Meek and his unusual recording techniques, and the sessions ended with the volatile producer throwing coffee all over his studio and storming off to his room. Although dejected, they soon signed with Fontana Records, and Howard and Blaikely chose to continue to write their material.

It was a slow start, with their initial two singles failing to chart, but third 7-inch You Make It Move reached number 26, and then Hold Tight!, from their eponymous debut album in 1966, climbed all the way to number four. Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Tich were now pop stars, and later that year, they narrowly missed out on the top spot with their most memorable hit, Bend It! ( they were very fond of exclamation marks in their song titles). Racy for its time, its notoriety helped it sell extremely well, but it couldn’t stop Jim Reeves’ Distant Drums and stalled at number two.

It wasn’t just their name that made Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Tich unique among the throng. They were, dare I say it, rather zany, and took the pop game less seriously then many of their peers. Want an example? The name of their second album in 1966 was If Music Be the Food of Love… Then Prepare for Indigestion.

Their fame continued, and not just in the UK. Over the years they scored three number 1s in New Zealand, and were also big in Canada and Australia. 1967 wasn’t quite as successful a year, but third album What’s in a Name and singles Okay! and Zabadak! reached the upper echelons of the charts.

And then came The Legend of Xanadu in 1968. At the time there was a fashion for bubblegum, eccentric songs (you’ve only got to look in the Archive to glance at the number 1s so far in this year), and the timing was right.

The Legend of Xanadu is regarded as rather a lost classic these days, but I was a little disappointed. It could be due to the misleading title, which led me to expect a psychedelic pop tune. And no, it’s got nothing to do with Xanadu by Olivia Newton-John and Electric Light Orchestra either. It’s actually a novelty western love song, featuring flamenco guitar, the sound of a whip cracking and a brass refrain reminiscent of the theme from The Magnificent Seven (1960). Dave Dee and co play it straight however, and there’s even a spoken word section near the end. I do admire the energy in the production and performance (recorded in half an hour apparently), but it didn’t leave too much of an impression on me.

Later that year they released fourth album If No One Sang, which featured their number 1 single. Their last 7-inch in 1968 was the ambitious The Wreck of the Antoinette, where the band aped the Beach Boys singing about a sunken vessel and Dozy recited Shakespeare in the intro. However, they were starting to feel like their sound was becoming too complex and that they were merely a vehicle for Howard and Blaiklely’s wild ideas and producer Steve Rowland’s glossy experiments.

By 1969 Dave Dee felt like the public were tiring of the quintet, and he was right, as their chart positions became steadily lower. That summer he chose to go solo. The rest of the band continued, under the less unweildy but also less memorable name D,B,M and T. They never reached the heights they had scaled in the 60s and split in 1972. Dee went on to become a producer, reuniting with his bandmates in 1974 and 1983.

They reformed the original line-up for the last time in the 90s. By then, Dee was also a Justice of the Peace. Sadly he was diagnosed with prostrate cancer in 2001, and succumbed in 2009 aged 67. In 2014 Tich retired and the band carried on, confusingly with new members assuming the nicknames of past members, with names like Mick III, making them sound like royalty. Dozy died in 2015 after a short illness, leaving Beaky, who had returned in 2013, as sole surviving member.

Written by: Ken Howard & Alan Blaikley

Producer: Steve Rowland

Weeks at number 1: 1 (20-26 March)

Births:

Footballer Paul Merson – 20 March
Actor Jaye Davidson – 21 March
Blur singer Damon Albarn – 23 March
Cricketer Mike Atherton – 23 March
Chess player Chris Ward – 26 March 

238. Bee Gees – Massachusetts (1967)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Written by: Barry Gibb, Robin Gibb & Maurice Gibb

Producer: Robert Stigwood & Bee Gees

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

Births:

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

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

 

189. Tom Jones – It’s Not Unusual (1965)

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It’s not unusual to have a strong opinion on Sir Tom Jones. Most people either love him or hate him. As for me, well, it depends on my mood. I recall going to see him while nursing a diabolical hangover at Glastonbury and his over-the-top bellowing made me want to put my head under the cider bus and plead for someone to run me over and put me out of my misery. But at the right time, and on the right song, Jones is a lot of fun, and there’s perhaps no better example of this then on his first number 1, It’s Not Unusual.

Before he was a sir, and before he was Tom Jones, he was Thomas John Woodward. He was born in 1940 in Pontypridd, Glamorgan, South Wales. He loved to sing from a very young age, and would perform at family events and in the school choir. Woodward’s world was turned upside down when he was diagnosed with tuberculosis at the age of 12. He spent two years recovering in bed, with little to do other than listen to music and draw. He loved US soul and R’n’B singers including Little Richard and Jackie Wilson plus rock’n’roll stars like Elvis Presley. Despite his reputation as a ladies’ man, he married his pregnant girlfriend Linda Trenchard when they were still in high school in 1957, and they stayed together until her death in 2016. To support his new family he began work in a glove factory, and later took on construction jobs.

In 1963 he was the singer in beat group Tommy Scott and the Senators and gathered somewhat of a following in South Wales. The following year they recorded tracks with eccentric producer Joe Meek (the genius behind Johnny Remember Me (1961), Telstar (1962) and Have I the Right? (1964), but had little luck. However, one night while performing, he was spotted by Gordon Mills. Mills had once been in the Viscounts, who had a minor hit with their version of Barry Mann’s Who Put the Bomp (in the Bomp Bomp Bomp) (see my blog on You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’). Mills was from South Wales but was now aiming to be a pop manager in London. He took the singer under his wing and renamed him ‘Tom Jones’ as an attempt to cash in on the 1963 Academy Award-winning movie of the same name.

Mills helped Jones bag a recording contract with Decca, but his first single in 1964, Chills and Fever, didn’t do great. Soon after he recorded a demo of It’s Not Unusual, a new track by Mills and Les Reed. Reed had been in the John Barry Seven and played piano on Adam Faith’s two number 1s, What Do You Want? (1959) and Poor Me (1960). Sandie Shaw was supposed to record it as a follow-up to her chart-topper (There’s) Always Something There to Remind Me (1964), but was so impressed by Jones’s delivery, she suggested he make it his second single. The BBC weren’t so keen, and despite the fact society was becoming more liberal, they could still be far too stuffy, and they reckoned Jones was too sexy, so it didn’t get much airplay. Luckily for the singer, pirate radio stations were growing in popularity, and Radio Caroline loved it.

Reed arranged the recording session for It’s Not Unusual, and there were some notable names involved. Possibly. There have long been rumours that among the session musicians was Jimmy Page (this isn’t the first time this has been mentioned on this site). Reed however insists the only guitarist was Joe Moretti, who contributed to Johnny Kidd & the Pirates’ classic Shakin’ All Over in 1960. Several people claim to have been the drummer, but the most likely person is Andy White, who famously played on the version of Love Me Do that made it onto the Beatles debut LP, Please Please Me. Also on the session, due to the unavailability of Jones’s usual keyboard player, was Reginald Dwight. Did Dwight take notes on how to be a flamboyant showman, a few years before he became Elton John?

Shaw was so right about this song, you can’t really imagine anyone other than Jones pulling it off. Despite me saying I have to be in the right mood for Tom Jones, hearing It’s Not Unusual immediately puts me in that mood. Jones’s complete lack of subtlety, raw power and pomposity works a treat and the band make heartbreak a joyous sound. You could call it his signature song, and there’s no wonder it became the theme tune to his musical variety series This Is Tom Jones later that decade. My memory of that Glastonbury experience in 2009 is very foggy, but a quick search of his setlist reveals he ended his initial set with It’s Not Unusual. I’d put money on me smiling at that point.

Written by: Les Reed & Gordon Mills

Producer: Peter Sullivan

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

Births:

TV presenter Lawrence Llewelyn-Bowen – 11 March 
Butterfly swimer Caroline Foot – 14 March
Boxer Michael Watson – 15 March 

176. The Honeycombs – Have I the Right? (1964)

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Maverick pioneering producer Joe Meek was responsible for three excellent number 1s over the first half of the 1960s – the gothic melodrama of Johnny Remember Me by John Leyton in 1961 and the futuristic ecstasy of Telstar by the Tornados in 1962. I’d always assumed that his death had happened before the onset of Beatlemania (a band he’d turned down), but here we are in 1964 with his final chart-topper, the primitive punch of Have I the Right? by the Honeycombs.

Since the onset of Merseybeat, Meek continued to do well, producing further hits for the Tornados, Mike Berry and Heinz throughout 1963. In early 1964 he was scheduled to have a new beat group in for audition known as the Sheratons. They were formed in November 1963 by hairdresser Martin Murray, who played rhythm guitar. Years before the White Stripes and even the Velvet Underground, they stood out as their drummer was Honey Lantree, who had been Murray’s salon assistant. Her brother John took up the bass, and his friends Dennis D’Ell and Alan Ward became the singer and lead guitarist respectively. In the audience for one of their gigs in February were the rookie songwriting duo Ken Howard and Alan Blaikley. Meek was impressed with Have I the Right? and as usual, he got the band into his apartment at 304 Holloway Road, Islington to record it as a single.

I thought Have I the Right? was going to be a completely new song for me, but I did recognise the chorus. It doesn’t feature the song title, and that threw me. What also threw me was just how brilliant it sounds in the context of any number 1s I’d heard up to this point. Yet again Meek astounded me, and this time it was due to the lo-fi recording. This is one of the most basic number 1s to date, and is almost punk-like in its simplicity and raw energy. D’Ell is a great singer, I particularly love that guttural growl as he reaches the chorus for the last time. And what a chorus! That amazing pounding beat you hear was achieved by not only Lantree’s drumming, but by band members stamping on the wooden stairs to Meek’s studio. The genius fixed five microphones to his banisters with bicycle clips, and someone beat a tambourine directly into a mic. What a brilliantly simple but effective recording.

The single was released in June by Pye Records. The label renamed the Sheratons as the Honeycombs, a pretty witty pun on their drummer’s nickname and previous occupation. It took a while to climb the charts, but eventually overtook Manfred Mann’s Do Wah Diddy Diddy and spent a fortnight at number 1 before being overtaken by the similarly groundbreaking You Really Got Me by the Kinks. Meek had done it again, but it was downhill all the way now.

Howard and Blaikley became managers of the Honeycombs and wrote their next two singles, but they couldn’t repeat their success. Their fourth single, Something Better Beginning, was by Ray Davies of the Kinks, but this too was a relative failure. By November Murray had left the group to be replaced by Peter Pye. Lantree sang on some later material, and when they performed the tracks live she was replaced on drums by Viv Prince from the Pretty Things. In April 1966 D’Ell, Ward and Pye all left the group, and a new version of the Honeycombs were formed, but they broke up in 1967. The 90s saw several different versions of the group touring the cabaret circuit. D’Ell succumbed to cancer in 2005, aged 62.

Howard and Blaikley would go on to become an acclaimed songwriting team, with a further number 1 under their belts, namely The Legend of Xanadu by Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick and Tich in 1968.

Of course, Meek’s life ended in tragedy. The mental issues that had always troubled him worsened, and the legal battle for Telstar‘s royalties left him out of pocket. His preoccupation with the spirit world deepened. A closet homosexual, he was implicated by association in an awful crime. In January 1967 the remains of a 17-year-old Bernard Oliver were found in two suitcases. Meek became implicated in ‘the Suitcase Murder’. Rumours were he had either recorded for him or was a tape-stacker in Meek’s studio. The crime was never solved, and although apparently Meek was innocent, the fear of being questioned (police had stated they would interview every known homosexual in London) tipped him over the edge. On 2 February he burst into a friend’s house dressed entirely in black and claimed he was possessed. The following day was the 18th anniversary of Buddy Holly’s death, an incident that Meek was obsessed with. During an argument with his landlady, Meek became enraged, grabbed the shotgun he had confiscated from Tornados bassist Heinz Burt, and murdered her. He then turned the gun on himself. Three weeks later, the court ruled in favour of Joe Meek receiving the royalties to his biggest hit Telstar. He would have been financially saved.

UPDATE (1/1/19): Honey Lantree, real name Anne Coxall, died on 23 December 2018. She was 75.

Written by: Ken Howard & Alan Blaikley

Producer: Joe Meek

Weeks at number 1: 2 (27 August-9 September)

141. The Tornados – Telstar (1962)

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It must have sounded to many like their record players or radios were malfunctioning at first. Telstar slowly fades in like no number 1 had ever done, to the sound of white noise, conjuring up images of the satellite the song was named after, before the clavioline begins and the tune gallops into life. Joe Meek’s imaginative masterpiece was a futuristic, optimistic anthem promising (like popular culture did so much at the time) a bright space-age future. But for its creator, it ultimately resulted in his life spiralling out of control, leading to murder and suicide.

Meek was obsessed with technology, so the launch of the Telstar communications satellite was a natural source of inspiration for him. He had become intrigued by the sound of the clavioline on the Dave Cortez hit The Happy Organ, and must have felt the instrument would help his new instrumental sound suitably space age. He gave the song to his group the Tornados, who formed in 1960, before providing backing for rock’n’roller Billy Fury. Like the Shadows with Cliff Richard, they also recorded instrumentals under their own name. In 1962 the group consisted of Clem Cattini on drums, who had already recorded several number 1s and would go on to perform more than anyone else, George Bellamy on rhythm guitar (father of Muse frontman Matt Bellamy, and very possibly an influence on that band), bassist Heinz Burt, lead guitarist Alan Caddy and Norman Hale on keyboards.  Meek produced Telstar in his usual (or unusual) way, recording the bulk of the track with the band in his flat. After laying down the main instruments, his associate Geoff Goddard, who had written Meek’s previous number 1, Johnny Remember Me added the clavioline that made the tune so unique, Meek was then in his element, adding the effects that were his signature. That sound of a spacecraft taking off at the beginning is in fact his toilet flushing, in reverse. Meek was achieving backwards effects four years before George Martin and the Beatles were experimenting along similar lines. Deciding that this new song needed something to help bring it to a climax, he hit upon the idea of adding a wordless vocal to mirror the clavioline, which Goddard also provided. The Tornados thought this was a bad idea, and you can’t blame them, as such a technique wasn’t well known at the time. Who’d heard of an instrumental with singing on it? At some point, the group also filmed a primitive video, with film clips of astronauts interspersed with the Tornados playing along. So much for Bohemian Rhapsody being the first music video.

Ever since Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space in 1961, the US became obsessed with the space age, and sure enough the UK followed suit. Telstar tapped into this feeling like no other song had even attempted at that point. Listening to this joyous sound, record buyers must have felt the future was now, and that it would only be a matter of time before they or their children would be living on the moon. 56 years later, it’s truly remarkable that such a song could come from the troubled mind of a schizophrenic in his independent home studio. The charts had come a long way since Al Martino’s Here in My Heart, nearly ten years previous.

Telstar was one of the biggest-selling singles of the year and became the first US number 1 to come from a UK group. Capitalising on its success, Meek produced a new version, with lyrics, entitled Magic Star, sung by Kenny Hollywood, but the lyrics took away some of the song’s mystery. Sadly, the original single was caught up in a legal battle when French composer Jean Ledrut accused Meek of plagiarising La Marche d’Austerlitz, a part of a score he had composed for the 1960 film Auschwitz. Meek claimed to have never seen the film (it hadn’t been released in the UK at this point), but the lawsuit prevented him from receiving any royalties for his biggest hit. Come 1967, this would have fatal repercussions.

In 1963, with Beatlemania on the rise (Meek had turned down the chance to work with the Fab Four), instrumental groups were losing ground, and the Tornados began to fall apart. This was in part due to Meek’s growing obsession with the bassist Heinz, who he had convinced he could make a solo star. Unfortunately, Heinz couldn’t sing, and the vocals on his solo debut were over-dubbed. Audiences weren’t keen, and poor Heinz would be attacked on stage, with beans thrown over him (Heinz Baked Beans, y’see). Eventually Heinz and Meek fell out, with Heinz leaving behind a shotgun… In 1965 Clem Cattini left the Tornados to go on to a safer and hugely successful career as a session drummer, and the band were left with no original members. In 66, the band made history again, releasing the first openly gay song, Do You Come Here Often? as a B-side The organ-led instrumental featured a casual conversation between two seemingly-homosexual men. The Tornados would do what countless 60s bands went on to do, namely reforming in a million different line-ups, and recorded various versions of Telstar. The original will always be the best. It was also one of Margaret Thatcher’s favourite songs, but don’t let that put you off.

The day after Telstar reached number 1, the public were served notice that soon the worlds of music and cinema would be changed dramatically, heralding the start of the 60s, two years after they’d actually began. 5 October saw the release of the first James Bomd film, Dr No, starring Sean Connery, and the Beatles first single in their own right, Love Me Do, was also released.

Written & produced by: Joe Meek

Weeks at number 1: 5 (4 October-7 November)

Births:

Presenter Caron Keating – 5 October 
Actress Nicola Bryant – 11 October 
Artist Naive John – 18 October 
Comedian Boothby Graffoe – 20 October – t
Presenter Nick Hancock – 25 October 
Actor Cary Elwes – 26 October

Deaths:

Activist Hugh Franklin – 21 October
Journalist Percy Cudlipp – 5 November