280. Rolf Harris – Two Little Boys (1969)

Boxing Day 1969: A fire broke out at the 15th-century Rose & Crown hotel in Saffron Walden when a TV in the lounge overheated. 11 people died that night, which led to the passing in 1971 of the Fire Precautions Act 1971.

The previous day, children all across the country will have opened their Christmas presents, and if they had BBC One on their television sets, they may have seen delighted to see Australian children’s entertainer Rolf Harris was meeting patients at Queen Mary’s Hospital for Children, Carshalton, Surrey. I’m betting that during the show, he’ll have sang that year’s Christmas number 1, and final chart-topper of the decade, Two Little Boys. Until a few years ago, it was a fondly remembered anti-war song by a national treasure. Now it’s an uncomfortable reminder that a paedophile tricked us all for nearly 50 , and the name of the song has only helped it become a sick joke.

Few stars have fallen in the UK as swiftly and completely as Harris. He was our favourite Aussie, loved by most, including me. And then in 2013 he was arrested and interviewed for allegations related to Operation Yewtree, set up by police in the wake of the Jimmy Savile sex scandals.

Harris was born on 30 March 1930 in Bassendean, Perth in Western Australia. He was named after Rolf Boldrewood, the pseudonym of a writer his mother, Agnes, admired. As a child, Harris loved to paint, and aged 16 and studying at Perth Modern School, his self-portrait was one of 80 works out of 200 to be hung in the Art Gallery of New South Wales as an entry in the 1947 Archibald Prize. He won his first art prize two years later. In his adolescence he was also an excellent swimmer, winning several competitions in the 40s and 50s. This is perhaps why he starred in a public information film in the 70s encouraging children to learn to swim.

He moved to England in 1952, and aged 22 he was studying at City and Guilds of London Art School in South London. Only a year later he had his big break in TV, performing a regular 10-minute cartoon drawing section on the BBC children’s show Jigsaw. By 1954 he was a regular on a similar show, Whirligig. When Harris wasn’t on TV (he also starred in ITV show Small Time from 1955) or learning from impressionist painter Hayward Veal, he could be found every Thursday at a club called the Down Under, where he would hone his entertainment skills.

By 1959 Harris was married to Welsh actress Alwen Hughes and back in Perth after being headhunted. His popularity exploded there and as well as presenting a children’s show and a variety show, he recorded his first single, Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport on one mic with four local musicians and his wobble board. He had his first hit, reaching number 1 in Australia in 1960. It sold well in the UK too and became one of his signature songs.

One of his most notable early hits was Sun Arise in 1962. Produced by George Martin, it was more serious than his usual fare, and I used to love listening to it, finding it pretty psychedelic. Harris couldn’t play the didgeridoo so the sound was replicated by eight double basses. Back in the UK, he got to know the Beatles, possibly through Martin, and despite being angered by them interfering in his act off the side of the stage during one of the Fab Four’s Christmas shows, they struck up a friendship. His 1965 single Jake the Peg became one of his most beloved songs. This tale of a man with an ‘extra leg’ would also sadly take on a whole new dimension once the truth came out.

As well as introducing us to Australian musical instruments, Harris became known in 1968 for his association with the futuristic Stylophone. He would use this miniature analog stylus-operated keyboard on his records and on TV, and he and David Bowie helped popularise the instrument. It did wonders for his street cred in the 90s when musicians like Pulp, Orbital and Stereolab began using it too, remembering Harris’s adverts from their childhood.

By the time of his number 1 single, Rolf Harris was untouchable (sadly, as it turned out), presenting the long-running The Rolf Harris Show on the BBC, churning out novelty hits and becoming one of TV’s top celebrities thanks to his charming eccentricities and lovable image.

Always on the lookout for songs for his TV show, he fell in love with Two Little Boys (ahem… see?) in 1969 and asked musical director Alan Braden to arrange a version for him.

One of the oldest songs to reach number 1 for some time, this music hall song had been written back in 1902 by American composer Theodore Morse and lyricist Edward Madden and was made popular by Scottish comedian Harry Lauder. An unashamedly sentimental tale of two young boys who played together, then fought together in the US civil war, Harris was perhaps very canny to pick such a tune as the 60s drew to a close, with the war in Vietnam proving more and more unpopular. Allegedly, John Lennon congratulated him for getting a protest song to the top of the charts. The TV audience loved it, and so he released it in time for Christmas. It ended the eight-week run of Sugar Sugar over the festive fortnight and stayed there for most of January 1970. So, after light entertainment tunes, the dying embers of rock’n’roll, Beatlemania, psychedelia and rock, the charts came full circle, and a light entertainer ruled the roost again as the 60s drew to a close.

I was genuinely hurt and disappointed when the allegations came out about Rolf Harris. Savile wasn’t a surprise at all, he was clearly weird and had a dark side (although obviously I was shocked and appalled when the scale of his shocking crimes became apparent). I felt, like much of the country, betrayed that such a loveable guy could hurt children. I watched him perform four times at Glastonbury Festival, and Two Little Boys was always one of the highlights. Looking back, I maybe sensed he wasn’t the person we were led to believe. There were times during his performances there that his real personality perhaps slipped out, and I remember finding him a bit vulgar, and wondering if in actual fact he wasn’t the weird but harmless manchild he had hoodwinked us into believing in.

Listening to Two Little Boys is a sad and uncomfortable experience now. Don’t get me wrong, it was never a masterpiece, and wasn’t something I would ever casually listen to, but it was hard not to have a soft spot for a song so full of pathos. It was a song that could make the hardest of hearts melt for a minute or two. Even Margaret Thatcher loved it! It wasn’t cool and it didn’t matter. It was about the love between two friends down the years, forced into fighting a bloody war but still looking out for each other. And that filthy heavy-breathing bastard went has ruined it for everyone.

The 70s were leaner years for Harris’s music career, but he remained very much in the public eye through his TV shows. He performed at the Sydney Opera House in 1973, and became Sir Rolf Harris in 1977, before launching a new series, Rolf on Saturday — OK?, which ran for three years.

In 1982 he performed didgeridoo on Kate Bush’s album The Dreaming, and did so again on her 2005 album Aerial. He presented Rolf’s Cartoon Time on the BBC through most of the 80s, and then moved to ITV to host Rolf’s Cartoon Club from 1989 to 1993, which is where my earliest memories of him stem. Apparently he hosted a child abuse prevention video in 1985, called Kids Can Say No!

It was around this time he began to be loved by students who remembered him from their youth. His version of Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven returned him to the charts for the first time in years in 1993, and he made his Glastonbury Festival debut. As well as being an ironic figure of fun, his TV career went from strength to strength thanks to Animal Hospital, which did wonders for his public image and ran from 1994 to 2003.

Harris also moved back into serious painting, presenting Rolf on Art and then Star Portraits with Rolf Harris. He even painted the Queen for her 80th birthday in 2005. Three years later he re-recorded Two Little Boys to mark the 90th anniversary of World War One, after discovering that the song was remarkably close to the experiences of his own father and uncle during the conflict. In 2011 he appeared on Piers Morgan’s Life Stories and spoke of his experiences of clinical depression.

2012 saw Rolf perform at the Queen’s Silver Jubilee Concert, breaking out into a rendition of Two Little Boys to fill in time, before comedian Lenny Henry stopped him and was booed off stage. Then that October, Operation Yewtree began. The UK was still coming to terms with Savile’s crimes when Harris was arrested in March 2013 after many rumours he was one of the suspects. In June 2014 he was found guilty of 12 counts of indecent assault and subsequently sentenced over five years in prison. While inside, stories would occasionally appear of him having written abusive song lyrics about his victims. He was released in 2017, and was last in the news earlier this year having entered a school playground to wave at children. In this climate of #cancelled, Rolf Harris, now 88, will be loathed until the day he dies.

So, sorry to end such an innovative, startling musical decade on such a sour note, but I will be touching on the 60s again soon. Like my blog Every 50s Number 1, I will listen to the whole lot again and whittle them down to pick the best and worst of every year, before deciding on the best and worst of the decade. A mammoth task indeed.

And eventually we’ll resume with the 70s number 1s, but as Two Little Boys was at number 1 until 30 January, here’s a look at what made the news as the new decade began.

A few changes were rang in by Big Ben on New Year’s Day, with the age of majority for most legal purposes reduced from 21 to 18 under the terms of the Family Law Reform Act 1969. The half crown coin also ceased to be legal tender. The National Westminster Bank began trading that day following the merger of National Provincial Bank and Westminster Bank.

Following a cold spell, the weather in January became changeable. The grave of Karl Mark was vandalised by anti-Germanic racists at Highgate in London on 18 January. Three days later, Fraserburgh lifeboat Duchess of Kent capsized, and five of the six crew died.

22 January saw a Boeing 747 land in Heathrow Airport, making it the first jumbo jet in the country. And four days before the first new number 1 of the 70s, Rolling Stones singer Mick Jagger was fined £200 for possession of cannabis. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose, as the French would say.

Written by: Theodore F Morse & Edward Madden

Producer: Mickey Clarke

Weeks at number 1: 6 (20 December 1969-30 January 1970)

Births:

Politician Ed Miliband – 24 December
Jamiroquai singer Jay Kay – 30 December
Politician Andy Burnham – 7 January
Olympic rower Tim Foster – 19 January
Comedian Mitch Benn – 20 January
Art curator Maria Balshaw – 24 January

Deaths:

Actor Jimmy Hankey – 13 January
Urdd founder Ifan ab Owen Edwards – 23 January
Poet Albert Evans – 26 January
Military historian Basil Liddell Hart – 29 January

279. The Archies – Sugar Sugar (1969)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Can you tell what it is yet?

Written by: Andy Kim & Jeff Barry

Producer: Jeff Barry

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

Births:

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

Deaths:

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

274. The Rolling Stones – Honky Tonk Women (1969)

No sooner have we reached the end of the Beatles’ 17 number 1s, than it’s now time to say goodbye to the Rolling Stones. But before we look at the backstory to their eighth and last number 1, it’s time to see what was in the news during their five-week run with Honky Tonk Women.

The day the single usurped Something in the Air, 23 July, saw the debut of BBC Two’s long-running snooker tournament Pot Black. The Beeb had been looking for programmes that could exploit its new colour transmissions, and they struck gold by turning snooker from a minority sport into one of the most popular in the UK. The show ran until 1986, but returned for many specials well into the 21st century.

On 1 August, the pre-decimal halfpenny ceased to be legal tender. The rest of the first half of August’s news was mostly taken up by the start of one of the late-20th-century’s biggest conflicts – The Troubles in Northern Ireland.

The Battle of the Bogside began on 12 August in Derry. The Taoiseach of the Republic of Ireland, Jack Lynch, made a speech the day after the ruins began requesting a United Nations peacekeeping force for Northern Ireland. On 14 August, British troops were deployed to restore order, and by the time they had, eight people had been shot dead, over 750 were injured, and over 400 homes and businesses had been destroyed. It was only the beginning.

Since the Rolling Stones’ triumphant comeback in 1968 with Jumpin’ Jack Flash, they hadn’t released any UK singles, but the album it came from, Beggars Banquet, was a real return to form, and the start of a run of classic LPs. Some of the tracks, including epic opener Sympathy for the Devil, are among the finest rock songs of the late 60s.

In December 1968 they filmed the concert special The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus for the BBC. The line-up included Taj Mahal, the Who, Jethro Tull, Marianne Faithfull and a one-off appearance by supergroup the Dirty Mac, consisting of John Lennon, Yoko Ono, Eric Clapton, Keith Richards and Mitch Mitchell. The Stones withheld the show, believing their appearance to be substandard, though some claim they felt the Who outshone them. It eventually surfaced in 1996, and is worth a watch.

Mick Jagger and Keith Richards holidayed together that Christmas in a ranch in rural Brazil, and while there they became inspired to write their next single. There is not an ounce of Brasilia in either version, but it did bring to mind Americana, country and roots. Originally they had in mind the version that surfaced on next album Let It Bleed. Country Honk was, as the name implies, a country version of Honky Tonk Women, with slightly different lyrics (the first verse is set in Jackson, Mississippi rather than Memphis, Tennessee) and Byron Berline on fiddle.

Multi-instrumentalist Brian Jones featured on the demos for this track, recorded that March. It would be the last material he performed on. By the time the band regrouped in June, they had met with Jones at his home. Increasingly paranoid and drug-addled, the former bandleader had been contributing less and less, and couldn’t compete with Jagger and Richards’ growing control any more. He left the band.

Seeking a replacement, their keyboardist Ian Stewart and bluesmith John Mayall recommended a 20-year-old guitarist called Mick Taylor to Jagger. He had replaced Peter Green in John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers in 1967 when he left to form Fleetwood Mac. The Stones invited Taylor to a session, and he believed he was only wanted as a session musician, but they were impressed and he was asked to continue. He overdubbed guitar on to Country Honk and the new electric version they were planning to release as a single, called Honky Tonk Women.

Richards later claimed that Taylor had transformed the single, but the newest member of the group insisted his contribution was minimal. Whatever he actually did, he’s listed with Richards as lead guitarist. Richards also provided the rowdy backing vocals and rhythm guitar. Along with the usual roles for the rest of the band, the single featured backing vocals from Reparata and the Deltrons, who had a hit in 1968 with Captain of Your Ship, Nanette Workman (slyly credited as ‘Nanette Newman’) and Doris Troy, later to be best known for her orgasmic wailing on Pink Floyd’s The Great Gig in the Sky. Steve Gregory and Bud Beadle duetted on saxophones, and producer Jimmy Miller was the man behind the cowbell.

The Rolling Stones really know how to write brilliant intros, and Honky Tonk Women is one of their most memorable, thanks to the cowbell, and Watts’ raunchy drumbeat. Jagger begins to tell his tales of sexual conquest in a louche drawl, boasting about picking up a ‘gin soaked bar-room queen in Memphis.’ They’re pretty risqué lyrics for the day, with references to ‘a ride’ and laying divorcees, but Jagger gets around it by ramping up the accent to a comical degree, making some of the words almost intelligible. I love the lyric ‘she blew my nose and then she blew my mind’.

Musically, it’s not too adventurous, throwaway even. It’s not up to the standard of most of their number 1s, and sees the start of the Rolling Stones settling into their role as the ultimate good-time rock’n’roll band. Only two verses and it’s over in under three minutes, but it’s still a lot of fun.

But just before its release, the fun stopped for Brian Jones. He was found dead in his swimming pool on 3 July. Death by misadventure was the official reason, but his liver and heart were both enlarged from his pursuit of drink and drugs. He was 27, that infamous age that many rock stars have died at.

The Stones were scheduled to perform a free televised concert at Hyde Park on 5 July. Planned in part to unveil their new guitarist, it became a wake for Jones. In an example of pure black comedy, butterflies were let out into the crowd, but many had died, so they were simply banged out of boxes onto the floor as the band got started. It’s what Jones probably wouldn’t have wanted.

The Rolling Stones were the last British band to have a number 1 in the 60s. They have never topped the singles charts since, and it’s unlikely they will until perhaps Jagger or Richards die… so, some time in the 31st century, perhaps. The classic albums kept coming for a while though, with Let It Bleed their final LP of the 60s, released 5 December, featuring Gimme Shelter and You Can’t Always Get What You Want.

Unfortunately the 60s came to a tragic end for the Stones. A day after its release they headlined the Altamont Free Concert. It was a bad idea to have the Hells Angels providing security, and several scuffles between them and the crowd ended with armed fan Meredith Hunter stabbed and beaten to death, during, of all songs, Sympathy for the Devil.

The 70s began with the band having left Decca records to set up Rolling Stones Records. The first material released, Sticky Fingers (1971), contained Brown Sugar and Wild Horses. They became tax exiles, moved to France and recorded the double album Exile on Main Street. Raw and ragged, it’s considered by many to be their last classic, as the rest of the 70s saw commercial success but lukewarm reviews from critics, starting with Goat Head’s Soup in 1973.

Miller departed as producer, and then Taylor left after the release of the Glimmer Twins-produced It’s Only Rock’n’Roll in 1974. Faces guitarist Ronnie Wood had contributed to the title track, but his group were still taken by surprise when he took up an offer to join the Rolling Stones. But frustrations over numerous drug offences affecting the group’s abilities to tour meant this wasn’t the best period for Wood to be joining them.

Fortunately things picked up again in 1978 with the release of Some Girls, which featured their last classic, the disco-influenced Miss You. Despite the Stones being on top again, a rift developed between Jagger and Richards. Nevertheless, 1981’s album of outtakes contained Start Me Up, another huge hit.

Jagger became too busy with a solo album to concentrate much on the Rolling Stones, and their output suffered, like many 60s/70s legends, from substandard material recorded with bombastic production techniques.

In 1985 Jagger had a number 1 single with David Bowie for Live Aid, featuring one of the stupidest, most unintentionally hilarious videos of all time. I am of course referring to Dancing in the Street. That same year saw the death of the Stones’ keyboardist Ian Stewart, who had been there from the start. With both of the Glimmer Twins releasing solo albums, these were lean years for the Rolling Stones.

They were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1989, along with Jones, Stewart and Taylor, and this helped thaw the frosty relationship of Jagger and Richard, who put aside their differences and began work on their first album in three years, Steel Wheels. It was the best they’d made in a while, though nowhere near their best, which was now a distant memory.

Bassist Bill Wyman decided to leave in 1991, but the news was kept secret until 1993. He went on to form Bill Wyman’s Rhythm Kings. We won’t go into his love life, because as we all know, he’s on extremely dodgy ground there. Darryl Jones has been their bassist ever since, yet for some reason he isn’t given recognition as a ‘full’ member of the band. I just hope it has nothing to do with the colour of his skin. And that isn’t an insinuation, just a genuine hope.

The Stones took a break after touring and then released Voodoo Lounge in 1994, which was their most critically acclaimed in years, followed in quick succession by the half-decent Stripped (1995). They brought the 90s to a close with Bridges to Babylon (1997).

Their last album of original material to date, A Bigger Bang, was released in 2005. 2012 marked the 50th anniversary of the band’s formation, so the Stones embarked on yet another mammoth tour off the back of their 1000th greatest hits compilation.

In 2013 Michael Eavis finally got his wish and they headlined the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury Festival. As I’ve mentioned before on this blog, I was lucky enough to be there, and they surpassed my expectations, playing a set of classic material. What really stood out was how much they seemed to relish the opportunity. They didn’t phone their set home, they attacked it with all the energy of a band more than half their age. It’s truly incredible how they can still have so much passion, really.

It’s a long, long time since the Rolling Stones were known as the most dangerous band in the world. You could argue they are just a money-spinning brand now, and to be fair, I’ve made that argument before. But seeing them at Glastonbury changed my opinion. Granted, we haven’t needed most of their recorded output since the early 80s, but it became clear to me that they actually get a kick out of still performing, even after all this time. Jagger recently had heart surgery, and is back on stage after a few months. The man is 75. He must have sold his soul to the devil to carry on the way he is. Look at Keith. He definitely has.

Their tally for number 1 singles may not match the Beatles or Elvis Presley , but the Rolling Stones outlasted them, through drug addictions, prison and deaths. They will come to an end one day though, and it may take that for people to realise not only that the Glimmer Twins were once one of the most talented songwriting teams of all time, but that we have lived through a true musical phenomenon, the like of which we’ll never see again.

Written by: Mick Jagger & Keith Richards

Producer: Jimmy Miller

Weeks at number 1: 5 (23 July-29 August)

Births:

Paralympian Tanni Grey-Thompson – 26 July
Bounty hunter Domino Harvey – 7 August
Joe Swail – Northern Irish snooker player – 29 August

Deaths:

Physicist Cecil Frank Powell – 9 August
Novelist Ivy Compton-Burnett – 27 August

272. The Beatles – The Ballad of John and Yoko (1969)

Midsummer, 1969: Burmese the horse was ridden by the Queen for the first time at Trooping the Colour on 14 June, a role she held until 1986. It was a busy time for the Royal family – a week later, BBC One transmitted a fly-on-the-wall documentary devoted to them. The Royal Family had been made by the BBC and ITV to celebrate the investiture of Prince Charles on 1 July, and gave an insight into the Windsors that could only have been imagined previously. Viewing figures topped 30,600,500, but some worried that the overexposure could damage the throne, and the Queen pulled it off air in 1972. Only clips have been seen on TV since then.

Earlier that day, Patrick Troughton made his last regular appearance in Doctor Who. Banished to Earth by the Time Lords in the final episode of The War Games, it was also the final black and white episode of the sci-fi series.

After the referendum in Rhodesia had voted in favour of becoming a Republic, the Governor of Southern Rhodesia, Sir Humphrey Gibbs, left Government House on 24 June. This severed the last diplomatic relationship with the UK.

All these events have one momentous historical event in common: they took place when the Beatles were at number 1 for the 17th and final time, with John Lennon’s The Ballad of John and Yoko. It was a sure a sign as any that the Fab Four were about to split up, and yet it proved that Lennon and McCartney were still able to put aside their differences and work together.

Lennon and Yoko Ono had married in Gibraltar, Spain on 20 March that year. Soon after Lennon wrote The Ballad of John and Yoko as a kind of travelogue set to a Chuck Berry sound, covering the wedding, the honeymoon in Paris, and their first bed-in a few days later at the Amsterdam Hilton.

An excited and impatient Lennon visited McCartney at home on 14 April, three days after Get Back had been released, in the hope of getting the song finished. Surprisingly, not only did they finish writing it, they went to Abbey Road that afternoon with producer George Martin and engineer Geoff Emerick (for the first time since he’d walked out of sessions for The Beatles) and recorded it, without George Harrison (who was on holiday) or Ringo Starr (he was filming The Magic Christian). The Ballad of John and Yoko was done and dusted by 9.30pm. Lennon sang lead, played lead and rhythm guitar, and made percussion sounds by slapping the back of an acoustic guitar. McCartney provided some excellent harmony vocals, bass, drums, piano and maracas. Appreciating the irony of being the only two band members involved, Barry Miles noted in Paul McCartney: Many Years From Now (1997) the following exchange: Lennon (on guitar): ‘Go a bit faster, Ringo!’ McCartney (on drums): ‘OK, George!’

After months of torturous misery during the Get Back sessions, how come the duo were able to knock up a single so quickly? The fact they were two down simplified matters obviously, but McCartney was probably so relieved that Lennon was enthusiastic for the first time in a fair while, he was bound to jump at the chance, even if the lyrics made it plain that Lennon was growing apart from the Beatles. He may also have known that Lennon was likely to go ahead and record it anyway with somebody else, and he was determined to keep the band together despite the tensions.

The Ballad of John and Yoko is a real oddity in the Beatles catalogue. With it’s self-centered lyrics, you could easily call this the start of Lennon’s solo career really. I find it a real shame that, after all my blogs on such classic material, this is the final Beatles song I get to write about for this blog. I mean, it’s only half the band! Let It Be would have been a far more appropriate way to end the number 1s of the greatest band of all time.

Unlike many though, I’m not here to bury it. It’s not a bad song, and it’s not my least favourite Beatles single. I think I prefer it to Get Back, because it has more energy. Ironically, it’s McCartney who shines here. His rhythm track has real punch to it, and I’ve always enjoyed his drumming (I’m certainly not knocking Starr though). And I really like the final verse when he joins Lennon to sing. I admire the chutzpah of Lennon to write a chorus which mocks the whole ‘Bigger than Jesus’ scandal of 1966 too. It showed how far music had come in three years, and the Beatles led the way for most of that time (having said that, many radio stations would either censor the song or refuse to even play it).

Maybe in a way it is an appropriate song to end on, with the Fab Four’s chief songwriters working together so closely again. Those days had been few and far between for some time, and sadly, there weren’t any more to come.

This single, backed with George Harrison’s superior Old Brown Shoe, was rush-released on 30 May, and was their first single to be in stereo only. Due to Lennon wanting the song to be topical, this meant the unusual approach of releasing it while previous single Get Back was still at number 1. Tommy Roe’s Dizzy knocked that from the top, but was only there for a week before The Ballad of John and Yoko hit number 1.

And here’s where the story of the world’s greatest band ends. Except obviously, it wasn’t over yet. The group had already agreed on McCartney’s suggestion to make another album, and sessions were under way. The Ballad of John and Yoko‘s success proved there was still fuel in the tank, and George Martin was glad to be back on board providing they went back to earlier methods of recording. In other words, stop the bickering of the past year. And they all got on much better… for a while, anyway. McCartney and Martin were keen on a long medley and Lennon wasn’t. Lennon didn’t bother turning up for sessions for Harrison songs either.

Before Abbey Road had been completed he released his first ‘solo’ single (as the Plastic Ono Band), the famous anti-war anthem Give Peace a Chance. Nothing was ever said, but there was a general feeling among all involved that Abbey Road would be their final work together.

McCartney had become the odd man out earlier that year after the other three had voted tough American businessman Allen Klein as their new manager, which put a huge strain on the band in addition to their other issues. On 20 September, six days before the release of one of their best albums, Lennon announced he was leaving and John, Paul, George and Ringo never recorded as a unit again.

Something/Come Together would have been a perfect number 1 single in October, but demand had been so high for its parent album, it missed out. One last song, Harrison’s I Me Mine, was completed minus Lennon in January 1970. This was done to make it part of the salvaged Get Back sessions, now to feature in a film and LP called Let It Be. Klein handed over the tapes to Phil Spector, who had recently produced Instant Karma! for Lennon. Smothering many of the songs with lush orchestral sounds, including Let It Be and The Long and Winding Road, McCartney was not amused, and beat Lennon to the punch by publicly announcing he had quit, the week before the release of McCartney, his first solo album, on 10 April.

The full story of the demise of the Beatles makes for a riveting but depressing read, and I recommend Pete Doggett’s You Never Give Me Your Money: The Battle for the Soul of The Beatles (2009) if you want to know more.

Despite many highly lucrative offers over the years, the Beatles never did reform. It’s likely they would have had Lennon not been murdered in 1980, with relations between he and McCartney thawing. The closest we got was the Anthology project of the mid-90s, and the singles Free As a Bird (1995) and Real Love (1996), where the remaining trio worked on Lennon demos provided by Ono. Although not up to the standard of their previous work, they’re decent enough tunes, and I still can’t believe neither made it to number 1. I guess the world had moved on. A bit.

A new romantic comedy, Yesterday, imagines a world in which they never existed. Pop would probably still have moved on from the doldrums of the early-60s, but it could never have become quite so innovative, so witty, so joyous and so magical without them. Nobody had, has, or ever will have the alchemy of the Fab Four.

The Beatles. 17 number 1 singles. They changed everything.

Written by: John Lennon & Paul McCartney

Producer: George Martin

Weeks at number 1: 3 (11 June-1 July)

Births:

Graphic artist Simon Taylor – 22 June

270. The Beatles with Billy Preston – Get Back (1969)

British Leyland Motor Corporation launched Britain’s first hatchback car on 24 April. The Austin Maxi was designed to compete with family saloons like the Ford Cortina. It was also the day on which the final episode of the long-running BBC Radio drama Mrs Dales Diary was broadcast.

It was also a big week in football, as Manchester City won the FA Cup on 26 April with a 1-0 win over Leicester City at Wembley. Two days later, Leeds United won the Football league First Division title for the first time.

The famed ocean liner Queen Elizabeth II embarked on its maiden voyage, from Southampton to New York, on 2 May. And 29 May saw the release of one of my favourite movies of all time (I’m not even kidding) – Carry On Camping. It became the biggest film at the box office of 1969.

All these events transpired during the six-week run at the top for Get Back. Hard to believe it but I’m nearly at the end of the Beatles’ career. This 16th number 1 was the last to feature John, Paul, George and Ringo together – plus one extra. For the first time, they gave equal billing to another musician – keyboardist Billy Preston.

The Beatles’ eponymous double LP hadn’t made the same cultural impact as Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band upon its release, but it was a wonder it had even been finished, as the sessions had been tense, with Harrison and Starr walking out at separate points. McCartney searched for a new project to keep them afloat.

In January 1969, the same month that the Yellow Submarine album was released, they regrouped. Macca suggested they continue down the back-to-basics road they started on the previous year, but with a twist. They would record an album of new material, rehearse it, then perform it in front of a live audience. The results would be made into an album and TV special called Beatles at Work. They hired Michael Lindsay-Hogg to film them rehearsing at Twickenham Studios that month.

What followed did nothing for inter-band relations. Lennon and Harrison later described the rehearsals as the lowest point the band ever experienced. Harrison, irritated by both Lennon and McCartney in particular, who was captured on camera patronising the guitarist, walked out. He returned five days later, but issued an ultimatum. They must abandon the idea of a live performance, and concentrate on getting the album, by that point known as Get Back, finished, and then use the songs for the TV show. He also wanted out of Twickenham, a cold location that did nothing for the frosty atmosphere amongst the Fab Four (and of course Yoko Ono). The Beatles decided they would relocate to the newly completed Apple Studios and use Lindsay-Hogg’s footage to make a new documentary film.

Among the many songs rehearsed that January was Get Back, intended to be the project’s title track. It originated from a jam session during rehearsals on 7 January. McCartney played with the lyric to a George Harrison tune from 1968. Sour Milk Sea was originally planned for The Beatles but surfaced as a single by Jackie Lomax on Apple Records instead, with bass from McCartney. It featured the lyric ‘Get back to where you should be’.

Two days later McCartney brought a more developed version of Get Back to rehearsals, with the ‘Sweet Loretta Martin’ wordplay pretty much complete. He had also come up with some controversial lyrics that would surface on bootlegs over the years. Paul decided to use the song to satirise the views of people like right-wing politician Enoch Powell’s views on immigration.

While ‘Don’t dig no Pakistanis taking all the people’s jobs’ may fit the tune of Get Back perfectly, the Beatles were wise in scrapping this approach. It’s likely not everybody would have got where they were coming from… It also didn’t help that McCartney would look at Ono whenever he sang ‘Get back to where you once belong’, according to Lennon.

Immigration was clearly on their minds, as they also worked on another right-wing satire at the same time, usually referred to as Commonwealth. Again, it’s a good thing this was dropped, and it was musically inferior to Get Back.

Bootleg recordings dating from 23 January reveal a conversation between McCartney and Harrison inbetween trying to whip their next single into shape. McCartney explains it was supposed to be a protest song, but the group then decide that the third verse, featuring the ‘Pakistani’ line, should be dropped.

Instead, the song evolved from an angry rock song to a softer, bluesy sound, no doubt helped along by the ‘fifth Beatle’, who had joined the group the previous day. Enter Billy Preston, who Harrison had invited to proceedings to try and bring an end to the bickering. He wisely assumed a relative stranger among them would put everyone on their best behaviour and give them a kick up the arse. He was right.

Billy Preston, born in September 1946 in Houston, Texas, had been a child prodigy. Self-taught, he never recieved a single piano lesson. He first met the Beatles aged 16 in 1962, when he was playing in the singer’s backing band at a Liverpool show that the Fab Four opened. When Harrison had left the January rehearsals, he had gone to a Ray Charles gig, in which Preston performed on the organ.

On 27 January the Beatles and Preston made a concerted effort to finish the song, which now featured a false ending and a coda. Take 11 was picked, but it had come to an abrupt end, so they returned to the studio the next day to work on the ending. When McCartney and Glyn Johns came to turn the performances into a single, they opted to go against the ‘as nature intended’ vibe of the project, and tacked on a coda from 28 January to Take 11. But they were right to do so, and did it so well, you’d never know, really. Unusually, the single features Lennon on lead guitar over Harrison on rhythm, as Lennon stepped up during Harrison’s absence.

Before it had even been released, Get Back had earned its place in Beatles folklore, for it was the last song they ever played together live. After much toing and froing about how the project would end, they finally agreed to be filmed performing on the roof of Apple Studios with Billy Preston. They opened the short concert with two takes, and then closed the set with one last version, featuring ad-libs from McCartney referring to the police ascending to the roof to shut the gig down (available on Anthology 3). The set ended with Lennon’s famous, ironic quote ‘I’d like to say thank you on behalf of the group and ourselves and I hope we’ve passed the audition.’ Phil Spector would add this to the end of the version that made it to Let It Be.

Although it was a wise decision to remove that third verse of Get Back, it does rob the song of any bite it had. Reduced to two verses that don’t really mean anything, it needs to be musically interesting, and it’s not too good at that really. It chugs along pleasantly enough, and Preston’s solo adds some soul to proceedings, but it’s far from their greatest single and none of the actual band get to do anything very exciting.

It’s not a return to the Beatles’ roots either, which was how it was marketed. Get Back is the sound of the Beatles following the curve, rather than being ahead of it. It is in fact, the boogie sound of US blues rockers Canned Heat, with McCartney even stealing the distinctive vocal stylings of Alan Wilson. But before I make it sound like I hate Get Back, I don’t. As a throwaway bit of fun, it’s perfectly fine. The single version does a good job of sounding both rough and ready and polished at the same time, thanks to the reverb added to the mix. It’s superior to the Let It Be version. But it’s clear to see that at this point, the Beatles were struggling to keep the magic going.

Released with Lennon’s Don’t Le Me Down as its B-side (which is better if you ask me), also featuring Preston, Get Back was Paul McCartney’s fourth A-side in a row. It was also the last of their singles to be released in mono.

And what became of Billy Preston? Quite a lot. He worked with the Beatles again, playing uncredited on superior tracks I Want You (She’s So Heavy) and Something. In the same year he signed with Apple Records and released his fourth album, That’s the Way God Planned It. Produced by Harrison, the title track was also a hit.

Following the split of the Beatles in 1970, Preston continued to work with his friend, and became the first person to release a version of Harrison’s solo number 1, My Sweet Lord. He also featured on Harrison’s triple album All Things Must Pass that year. Not only that… remember Stephen Still’s excellent single Love the One You’re With? That title came from a saying of Preston’s.

In 1971 he left Apple to join A&M Records, and in addition to his own work selling well, he worked on many Rolling Stones albums, including Sticky Fingers and Exile on Main St. and was their primary touring keyboardist from 1973 to 1977. In 1974 he co-wrote and released the first version of You Are So Beautiful, a soul classic later made famous by Joe Cocker.

Preston worked with Motown in the early 80s, then concentrated on session work for artists including Luther Vandross and Whitney Houston. Drug issues curtailed his career but he resurfaced in the 90s, playing with, among others, Eric Clapton, Ringo Starr and the Band.

Following Harrison’s death in 2001, his friend performed three songs at the 2002 Concert for George at the Royal Albert Hall. Also in 2002, Preston played piano on Johnny Cash’s album American IV: The Man Comes Around. Towards the end of his life he appeared on American Idol and worked with Red Hot Chili Peppers and Neil Diamond. His last live performance saw him promote the re-release of the 1972 documentary The Concert for Bangladesh. On his last song on stage he performed Harrison’s Isn’t It a Pity with Harrison’s son Dhani and Starr.

Soon after, Preston suffered pericarditis and fell into a coma. He had been struggling with kidney disease and his drug issues (which many feel stemmed from problems due to being abused as a child and later hiding his sexuality) had returned. He died in June 2006, aged 59.

Written by: John Lennon & Paul McCartney

Producer: George Martin

Weeks at number 1: 6 (23 April-3 June)

Births:

Actress Kate Hardie – 26 April
Television presenter Tess Daly – 27 April
Actor Cy Chadwick – 2 June

Deaths:

Writer Sir Osbert Sitwell – 4 May
Civil Engineer Sir Owen Williams -23 May

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

258. The Beatles – Hey Jude (1968)

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15 September saw the Great Flood of 1968 bring exceptionally heavy rain and thunderstorms to the south east of England. The following day, the General Post Office divided post into first-class and second-class services for the first time.

Rewind seven months, and the Beatles travelled to Rishikesh in northern India to take part in a Transcendental Meditation course under the guidance of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Without Epstein to keep them under control, John, Paul, George and Ringo were struggling to stay together since McCartney had attempted to take the reins. Drugs were also having an impact. Perhaps spirituality could help?

It did and it didn’t. They were supposed to stay for three months, but Starr was the first to leave, after ten days. He likened it to Butlin’s. McCartney left after a month. Lennon and Harrison, who had been the first to try acid, were more open-minded, and of course Harrison was deeply interested in India. However, they both left a month later upon hearing the Maharishi was trying it on with female members of their entourage. Lennon, desperate for a father figure, was particularly hurt, immortalising the experience in Sexy Sadie.

But India had helped unlock the group’s creativity, to the extent they started work on their eponymous double album that May. Upon their return, they also announced the creation of Apple Records. Apple Corps Ltd was originally conceived after the death of Epstein, with their film Magical Mystery Tour its initial release under Apple Films. Their shop, Apple Boutique, opened in December 1967, but was gone by the following June. The failure was prophetic. The Beatles were overreaching. They were the greatest band of all time, but they weren’t businessmen. Far from bringing them closer together, Apple Records helped quicken the end, behind the scenes. The press conference implied that the new label would create a utopia, where anyone could send in their music, and although it was by far the most successful part of the empire, this was largely because of the music of the Beatles.

Many believe Hey Jude was the debut release on Apple Records. ‘Apple 1’ was a single pressing of Frank Sinatra singing Maureen Is a Champ to the tune of The Lady Is a Tramp. It was a surprise gift for Starr to his wife Maureen for her 21st, apparently. The confusion arose from Hey Jude‘s marketing as one of the ‘First Four’ singles on the label.

It was clear from the start that Paul McCartney was aware of just how popular his new ballad would be. Originally called Hey Jules, he has always said it was written in sympathy for Julian Lennon. His father had left his mother for the artist Yoko Ono in May, and McCartney thought it could help heal wounds. Cynthia was touched by the gesture when McCartney played it for them in a surprise visit. McCartney had already changed the name from ‘Jules’ to ‘Jude’, but there was no doubt to its meaning.

Macca would perform his latest composition at any given opportunity, including while producing the Bonzo Dog Band’s I’m the Urban Spaceman under the pseudonym Apollo C  Vermouth. Lennon, who had often struggled with McCartney’s choices for singles over the past few years, loved the song – in part because he thought it was actually written for him, ironically as a message to move on and stick with Ono. Paul also later said that he felt Hey Jude was perhaps aimed subconsciously at himself – his relationship with Jane Asher was nearly over. He had begun an affair with Linda Eastman, and was also involved with Frankie Schwartz.

That’s the beauty of Hey Jude. It’s essential message, that love hurts, but it’s worth the struggle, so chin-up, can be applied to anyone. It helps to know you’re not alone.

Famously, when the song was first presented to John and Yoko when they visited Paul on 26 July, he told them he would fix the line ‘the movement you need is on your shoulder’, John replied, ‘You won’t you know. That’s the best line in the song’.

The Beatles first rehearsed the song three days later at Abbey Road over two nights. Recordings prove that despite the animosity within the group, they could still get on and produce magic when working on the right material. However the mood did sour when Paul refused to let George play a guitar line as a response to the vocal.

They entered Trident Studios to record the master track on 31 July, after hearing it was equipped with an eight-track console rather than the standard four. The basic track featured McCartney on piano and lead vocal, Lennon on acoustic guitar, Harrison on electric guitar and Starr on drums. On 1 August they overdubbed McCartney’s bass, backing vocals from Lennon, McCartney and Harrison, and tambourine by Starr.

At some point they had decided the song was to feature that legendary lengthy coda that spawned a thousand imitations, and beefed it up with a 36-piece orchestra. All but one member of the orchestra joined in with singing and clapping on the record, which was deliberately faded out slowly until the record was allegedly deliberately made to last one second longer than Richard Harris’s MacArthur Park. For 25 years, Hey Jude was the lengthiest number 1 single. Meat Loaf’s I’d Do Anything for Love (But I Won’t Do That), released in 1993, ran for 7:52. If you simply can’t get enough of Hey Jude, the mono version lasts that little bit longer.

Depending on whether you can hear the accidental swearing in the Kinks’ You Really Got Me (I can’t), Hey Jude is also the first number 1 to feature audible swearing. At around 2:57, listen with headphones and you hear a ‘Woah!’ followed by ‘Fucking hell!’. For a few years now I assumed this was Lennon, and some sources claim it was a result of him listening to a playback and the volume being too loud on his headphones. But according to Beatles engineer Geoff Emerick, the swearing is from McCartney who had hit a bum note. Lennon persuaded him to keep it in, insisting nobody would ever know but those in the studio. Once you’ve heard the swearing, you’ll never miss it again.

Hey Jude is one of the greatest singles of all time. I won’t be persuaded otherwise by naysayers in recent years, who’ve scoffed at the fact it’s rolled out by McCartney at the Olympics and seemingly every big UK celebration. Overfamilarity hasn’t dulled its beauty for me. As I’ve said above, it’s a beautiful, sincere message from McCartney, and it’s sung with real tenderness until the coda.

Some scoff at the coda, calling it overblown, and laugh at McCartney’s soulful interjections during the chant. They’re wrong. I recall reading somewhere a review of the song that suggested the moment the orchestra represents the moment that Jude realises the singer is right, a sort-of ‘eureka’ moment. I love that idea, and if you go along with that, it makes McCartney’s excited performance perfectly appropriate. He’s chuffed that Jude has got the message, and is thrilled for him.

You can’t blame Hey Jude for all the substandard rip-offs that followed in its wake, either. And to be fair, it was also responsible for some really good rip-offs, eg David Bowie’s Memory of a Free Festival a year later. It has been misused over the years, adopted by other singers/bands as a cheap way of lengthening their set (Robbie Williams at Glastonbury in 1998, for example), but when heard at the right time, in the right atmosphere, it can bring a tear to the eye, or make you feel pure ecstasy (the writer himself at Glastonbury in 2004, for example).

Hey Jude was released on 26 August. As mentioned earlier, it was one of the initial four Apple singles released to the public. The other three were Mary Hopkins’ Those Were the Days (produced by McCartney) which would knock the Beatles from the top spot), Jackie Lomax’s Sour Milk Sea (written and produced by Harrison) and Thingumybob by the Black Dyke Mills Band (produced by McCartney).

Michael Lindsay-Hogg was hired to film videos for the single and the B-side Revolution (for some reason, they were a double-A-side in the US, but not here). Together, they worked on a mock-live performance, where the Beatles performed to a backing track with live orchestra and vocals, as they reached the coda, the audience invade the stage and envelop the group, creating a beautiful image of band and fans as one. An enduring image, but as false as John, Paul, George and Ringo pretending they were still a cohesive unit. The Beatles were growing up and outgrowing each other.

But in September 1968, the Beatles were back on top with the best-selling single of 1968, and four out of the next five number 1s were linked to the Fab Four. After the commercial misfire of Magical Mystery Tour the year before, they ruled the world once more.

As for Hey Jude, I predict that unfortunately it’ll take the death of Paul McCartney for popular opinion to turn round and for it to be recognised as the classic it undoubtedly is, and for its writer to be recognised as a true genius alongside John Lennon.

Written by: John Lennon & Paul McCartney

Producer: George Martin

Weeks at number 1: 2 (11-24 September) *BEST-SELLING SINGLE OF THE YEAR*

Births:

Politician Grant Shapps – 14 September
Television presenter Philippa Forrester – 20 September 

Deaths:

Scottish golfer Tommy Armour – 12 September