238. Bee Gees – Massachusetts (1967)

the-bee-gees-radio-sessions-1967-vinyl-lp.jpg

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

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

The_Honeycombs_(1964).jpg

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)

126. The Shadows – Kon-Tiki (1961)

harris_1851932b.jpg

Although Cliff Richard and the Shadows were still a firm fixture in the charts, and these were the years in which they couldn’t put a foot wrong, 1961 was a surprisingly quiet year for number 1s from either act. Together they released four singles, all of which reached the top five, and the Shadows had also had plenty of top ten success since their influential Apache in 1960. The first week of October saw the instrumental four-piece back at the top with a track by Michael Carr. Carr had co-written We’re Going to Hang Out the Washing on the Siegfried Line with Jimmy Kennedy in 1939, which became very popular during the early stages of World War Two. 21 years later he had written Man of Mystery for the Shadows, which had reached number five in December 1960.

This latest instrumental, Kon-Tiki, was named after the famous hand-built raft used by Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl in 1947 to cross the Pacific Ocean from South America to the Tuamotu Islands. A 1950 documentary film about Heyerdahl’s dangerous mission, also named Kon-Tiki, won an Oscar for Best Documentary Feature the following year.

You would think a song named after such an adventure would be full of tension and danger, but Kon-Tiki is no Apache. It’s a fast-paced showcase for Hank Marvin’s surf guitar sound, but there aren’t many hooks to speak of and it’s too polite to leave much of an impact.

During Kon-Tiki‘s brief stint at number 1, drummer Tony Meehan left the group to become a session drummer and arranger for eccentric genius Joe Meek, who had produced John Leyton’s Johnny Remember Me. He was replaced by Brian Bennett, who stayed with the Shadows for the rest of their active years.

In the news in October 1961… the entire island of Tristan da Cunha was evacuated to Surrey when a volcano erupted. There they remained until 1963, bizarrely.

Written by: Michael Carr

Producer: Norrie Paramor

Weeks at number 1: 1 (5-11 October)

Births:

Formula 1 driver Julian Bailey – 9 October 
Spandau Ballet bassist Martin Kemp – 10 October
Children’s TV presenter Neil Buchanan – 11 October 

124. John Leyton – Johnny Remember Me (1961)

Johnny%20Leyton%20Touch-cropped_0.jpg

With the exception of the Everly Brothers’ Cathy’s Clown and Temptation, we’ve yet to have any number 1 singles that showed any sign of evolution in production techniques. Pop had simplified since the inception of the charts, and most producers simply got the act in a studio and recorded live or as close to as possible, in as few takes as they could. Eccentric genius Joe Meek helped to change all that, and broadened pop’s horizons. And all from a flat above a leather goods shop in Islington.

Meek had been interested in electronics most of his life. Growing up in Newent, Gloucestershire, he filled his parents’ shed with old radios, circuitry and random electronic paraphernalia. He worked as a radar technician during his national service, and then in 1953 he worked for the Midlands Electric Board, using their resources to produce his first record. Meek later became an audio engineer, at first for a radio company, before first making his presence felt in the charts in 1956, upsetting jazz musician Humphrey Lyttelton by compressing the sound of his single Bad Penny Blues. Despite this, it became a hit. He was also involved in Anne Shelton’s number 1, Lay Down Your Arms, but I won’t hold that against him too much (I decided this was the worst number 1 single of 1957, here).

Meek co-founded Triumph Records in 1960, and the company had a top 10 hit with Angela Jones by Michael Cox, but Meek’s fiery temperament combined with distribution issues meant the label lasted less than a year. Soon after he conceived and produced concept album I Hear a New World, years before the term even existed. I first heard this around 13 years ago, and didn’t appreciate it anywhere near as much as I should have. I’ve just re-listened to prepare me for writing about Meek, and while the album (that was shelved for decades) is so primitive as to be amusing in places, it’s also astounding to think such a thing was being worked on as early as 1960. At times the album resembles ambient music, again, decades before the term existed. With the help of financial backing from a fellow eccentric, Major Wilfred Alonzo Banks, he set up his own production company, RGM Sound Limited, and ran it from his flat at 304 Holloway Road. One of Meek’s acts, Geoff Goddard, had tried to become famous under the alias Anton Hollywood (!) but fame eluded him. One night, a haunting song came to Goddard in a dream. He woke with a start and immediately sang it into the tape recorder he kept by his bedside. In an era in which teenage tragedy songs were performing so well, Johnny Remember Me could potentially be a huge hit. This gothic tale of a man haunted by his love’s spirit had a memorably eerie chorus. They just needed Meek to work his magic, and find the right singer.

John Leyton was an Essex-born actor who had worked his way up from bit parts on television and in films to becoming well-known due to his part as Ginger in Granada’s adaptation of Biggles. His good looks even earned him a fan club. Leyton’s manager was Australian-born entrepreneur Robert Stigwood, who went on to manage Cream and the Bee Gees. The Robert Stigwood Organisation, or RSO, eventually went into film production and was responsible for Saturday Night Fever (1977) and Grease (1978). But we’re getting ahead of ourselves here… Stigwood thought Leyton should record a cover of Tell Laura I Love Her with Meek, but Ricky Valance reached number 1 in 1960 with his version, and Leyton’s was withdrawn from sale. Clearly thinking that Leyton could portray the camp drama needed for their own death disc, Meek gave Leyton another shot and recorded Johnny Remember Me with him. Charles Blackwell looked after the arrangement. Leyton later recalled that the kitchen sink production involved Meek actually producing from the kitchen, with him in the sitting room, backing singers in the bathroom and string players upstairs.

With its urgent, galloping rhythm, courtesy of backing band the Outlaws, Johnny Remember Me begins like a theme from a western (a clever touch – this genre was still very popular in the UK), but the lyrics suggest a very British drama, with references to mist and the moors bringing to mind Wuthering Heights. When the ghostly wail of Lissa Grey takes over in the chorus, you’re aware you’re listening to a pretty special song. I’m not sure what the sounds are that Meek conjures up in the instrumental break, but I haven’t heard anything that unusual in a number 1 up to this point. Meek’s production is perfect, managing to sound ghostly without sounding cheesy. British pop had just taken a leap forward, and on a shoestring budget.

Stigwood’s idea to promote Johnny Remember Me was a masterstroke, and will have played a key factor in its success. Leyton had just bagged a role in ITV drama Harpers West One. He played rock star Johnny Saint-Cyr, and in one scene he had to perform in front of adoring female fans. Stigwood suggested he perform his new single, and the plan paid off. Leyton took Johnny Remember Me to number 1 for three weeks, before Shirley Bassey took over, but Leyton then went back to the top for a fourth week.

Leyton’s follow-up, Wild Wind, went to number 2, but the following year his association with Meek and Goddard ended. He took on more acting work to stay busy (including a part in 1963’s The Great Escape), but by the 1980s he had retired from showbusiness. However, in the 90s he began performing on the nostalgia circuit, which he still does to this day, with his backing band the Flames. My parents have seen him, and my dad says he looks ridiculously young despite being 82. As we know, Meek didn’t go on to enjoy a long life, but that’s a story for another time…

Although Meek was gay, in 1961 such matters were still considered something to be ashamed of in mainstream culture. But things were slowly changing. On 31 August the movie Victim was released, and made history as the first film to feature the word ‘homosexual’. The subject matter also came up in A Taste of Honey, a cinematic adaptation of Shelagh Delaney’s kitchen sink play, that was released on 14 September. Also that month, a stand collapsed during a match involving Glasgow Rangers at Ibrox Park on 16 September. Three people died and 35 suffered injuries.  The following day, police arrested over 1300 protestors during a CND rally in Trafalgar Square.

Oh, and a brief snatch of Johnny Remember Me made a cameo appearance in Bronski Beat and Marc Almond’s version of I Feel Love in 1985. Quite why they two acts decided to stick the chorus to this in the middle of a medley of Donna Summer’s I Feel Love and Love to Love Your Baby, I do not know, but the video makes for an amusing watch. Enjoy Jimmy Somerville and Marc Almond trying to out-camp each other here.

Written by: Geoff Goddard

Producer: Joe Meek

Weeks at number 1: 4 (31 August-20 September, 28 September-4 October)

Births:

Actor Kevin Kennedy – 7 September
Author Tom Holt – 13 September

Deaths:

Scottish sculptor Sir William Reid Dick – 1 October