May 1967 was exceptionally wet with frequent thunderstorms. On the second day of the month, Prime Minister Harold Wilson announced that the UK would be applying for EEC membership. On the sixth, Manchester United won the Football League First Division title. Five days later, the UK and Republic of Ireland officially applied for the EEC.
The month before, the UK became the first winners of the Eurovision Song Contest with an English language track. Sandie Shaw, a former number 1 artist twice with (There’s) Always Something There to Remind Me in 1964 and Long Live Love in 1965, was victorious in Vienna, Austria with Puppet on a String.
Since Long Live Love the hits had continued for Shaw for a time, including Message Understood and Tomorrow, but steadily the sales numbers began to drop and by 1967 she was only scraping into the top 40.
A large factor in this may have been the fact she was involved in a divorce scandal. She had been involved in an affair with Douglas Murdoch, a TV executive on Ready, Steady, Go! Her management decided a move into cabaret, to present a more family-friendly image, may save her. Shaw disagreed and thought it would destroy all her credibility, but she still found herself performing five songs on The Rolf Harris Show, which the public would then vote on to choose the track she would perform in Vienna.
To her horror, Puppet on a String was a runaway success. It nearly didn’t happen though, as the BBC were horrifed by the sex scandal (the judge called her a ‘spoiled child’) and were ready to drop her right up until the day before the show.The barefooted performer, in her 1991 autobiography The World at my Feet (clever title), she said, ‘I hated it from the very first oompah to the final bang on the big bass drum. I was instinctively repelled by its sexist drivel and cuckoo-clock tune.’
Shaw has it spot on. What a painful listen. The oompah element is bad enough, but is at a manic speed that makes her wailing sound like a needy woman on the edge of a nervous breakdown. It’s sadly ironic she ended up singing such pathetic lyrics, as she was clearly a strong woman, which was probably sadly unusual in the pop world at the time. The song’s protaganist is likely being used and seems okay with that, despite the ups and downs.
It’s bad enough being subjected to it once. Now, imagine you’re Shaw, a once-respectable star, reduced over the years to performing it over and over. It could send anyone insane. The fact the song will have reminded her of a tough time in her personal life will have only made her hate Puppet on a String all the more.
However, her management were wise to enter the song in Eurovision, as this is precisely the kind of crap its audience lapped up back then, and she was popular in the continent. It won by a huge margin, made her the first female artist to have three number 1s, and was the biggest selling single of the year in Germany. It’s also believed to be the biggest-selling Eurovision song of all time, and potentially the biggest-selling single by a British female singer ever. Let that sink in for a moment.
Her career revitalised, the Dagenham singer was a sensation once more. In 1968 she began her own fashion label and the BBC soon forgot their issues with her, giving her a TV series, The Sandie Shaw Supplement. Her last hit single was Monsieur Dupont in 1969, which reached number six. Also that year she released an album of covers of the hip rock stars of the time. Reviewing the Situation featured her version of Led Zeppelin’s Your Time Is Gonna Come, and ended with a decent version of the Rolling Stones’ Sympathy for the Devil. The decade came to a close with her single Heaven Knows I’m Missing Him Now – the inspiration for the Smiths’ Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now in 1984.
When her contract with Pye Records ran out in 1972 she chose to retire from music. She had branched out into acting and writing children’s books, but eventually found herself working as a waitress in a London restaurant. She released two singles in 1977 and the following year became a Buddhist, which she still is. She also divorced her first husband, fashion designer Jeff Banks in 1978.
In 1982 she married Nik Powell, co-founder of the Virgin Group with Richard Branson, and she was introudced to the new wave of pop stars, working with BEF (later to become Heaven 17) and duetting with Chrissie Hynde at a Pretenders concert. Her first album in years, Choose Life, was released in 1983.
Later that year she received a letter from ‘two incurable Sandie Shaw fans’. Morrissey and Johnny Marr, singer and guitarist in indie darlings and 60s-pop-star-worshippers the Smiths, told her that, ‘the Sandie Shaw legend isn’t over yet. There is more to be done.’ Powell knew Geoff Travis, owner of the Smiths’ label Rough Trade, and soon she was recording her version of their debut single Hand in Glove. Morrissey was obsessed with the fact their first release hadn’t been a hit, and hoped Shaw would rectify this. Although it only reached number 27, she was back on Top of the Pops, miming with Marr, Andy Rourke and Mike Joyce backing her. Two years later she was touring universities with a backing band made up of members of new wave group JoBoxers.
Her life took another turn in the 90s, when she divorced again and met third husband Tony Bedford. She trained to be a psychotherapist and together in 1997 they opened the Arts Clinic with the aim of providing help for those in creative industries. She also battled for control of her archive recordings and made new versions of her 60s and 80s recordings.In the 00s Shaw seems to have come to terms with Puppet on a String, announcing she was proud of her Eurovision past. To celebrate her 60th birthday in 2007 she released a remake, Puppet’s Got a Brand New String, produced by 80s pop star Howard Jones. She wisely ditched the oompah stylings of the original, though.
In 2010 she recorded the theme to the comedy film Made in Dagenham, which dramatised the Ford sewing machinists strike of 1968. Shaw had actually worked there before she was famous. Lyrics came from left-wing singer-songwriter Billy Bragg.
Sandie Shaw was made an MBE in 2017. Now 71, she is well respected as a key figure of the 60s pop scene and a formidable personality who refused to tow the line in a male-dominated industry. We can easily forgive her for Puppet on a String.
Written by: Bill Martin & Phil Coulter
Producer: Ken Woodman
Weeks at number 1: 3 (27 April-17 May)
Footballer David Rocastle – 2 May
Journalist Jon Ronson – 10 May
Poet John Masefield – 12 May