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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Written by: Les Reed & Gordon Mills

Producer: Peter Sullivan

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

Births:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Written by: Ken Howard & Alan Blaikley

Producer: Joe Meek

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

141. The Tornados – Telstar (1962)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Written & produced by: Joe Meek

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

Births:

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

Deaths:

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

126. The Shadows – Kon-Tiki (1961)

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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)

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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