232. Sandie Shaw – Puppet on a String (1967)

sandie-shawMay 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) 

Births:

Footballer David Rocastle – 2 May
Journalist Jon Ronson – 10 May

Deaths:

Poet John Masefield – 12 May 

193. The Beatles – Ticket to Ride (1965)

23 April saw the opening of the Pennine Way. The National Trail runs 267 miles from Edale in the Derbyshire Peak District, up to Kirk Yetholm in Scotland. Three days later, Manchester United won the Football League First Division title. In other football news, Liverpool won the FA Cup for the first time, defeating Leeds United 2-1 at Wembley Stadium on 1 May. Elsewhere, on 7 May the Rhodesian Front, led by Ian Smith, won a landslide victory in the general election in Rhodesia.

Meanwhile, the Beatles were at number 1 for the seventh time, with their most adventurous single to date.

In February, they had begun filming, and recording the soundtrack album, for their second movie (their first in colour), provisionally called Eight Arms to Hold You. Just as weird as the title was the film itself. Once again directed by Richard Lester, this was a more surreal, loose, knockabout comedy than A Hard Day’s Night (1964) and with a bigger budget, too. Intended as a spoof of spy films, it essentially became an excuse for the Fab Four to travel to exotic locations. The Beatles spent most of the time stoned out of their minds, and would often struggle to stop themselves laughing while filming. In some scenes, their eyes are bloodshot from all the smoking they indulged in. Lads.

Fortunately for everyone, the Beatles on marijuana didn’t result in self-indulgent dribble. It made for their best film. That’s nothing compared to the impact on their music, though.

Ticket to Ride was the first track worked on for their fifth album. In 1980, Lennon claimed in Playboy that the song was pretty much his own. He also proudly stated it invented heavy metal. The jury’s out on both, but it began one hell of a creative patch. None of their singles had sounded like this, musically or lyrically. He said Paul McCartney was only responsible for Ringo Starr’s drum sound, whereas McCartney later stated they wrote it together in three hours.

Even if Lennon was right, you can’t underestimate the drums on Ticket to Ride, so McCartney clearly made an important contribution. Making Starr play in such a stop-start fashion created an epic, proto-pyschedelic sound, which isn’t that far removed from the still-startling Tomorrow Never Knows, created a year later. George Harrison once said that the drums were also influenced by the equally important jagged guitar riff, which he claimed ownership of, having played it on his Rickenbacker. Whoever came up with what, this track was breaking new ground.

Although the Beatles were innovative with their songwriting from the start, those first few years were often full of basic lyrics about love. Not this time. The combination of an adoration of Bob Dylan and drugs made the words in Ticket to Ride more adult, oblique and interesting. A woman is leaving the narrator, that much we know. So far, so ‘blues’. But where to? Some suggest the woman has become a prostitute. McCartney once claimed she’s simply off to Ryde on the Isle of Wight. I find the former more likely. The prefix of ‘I think’ adds so much to the song, without explaining itself. And although the narrator isn’t sure exactly whether he’s upset or not, he says his baby definitely isn’t. It was rare at the time to allow a woman in a break-up to have the upper hand in a pop song.

Ticket to Ride was also a first for the Beatles for the way in which it was recorded. They were taking an increased interest in the way their songs sounded, and from now on they would tape rehearsals and concentrate on backing tracks, before overdubbing more instruments and the vocals.

Although most of the rest of the album it came from was fairly straightforward, Ticket to Ride marked the start of the band’s psychedelic period, and that’s easily my favourite era of my favourite band. The slow pace of the drumming, combined with the drone of the guitars, gives it an Indian feel. It seems this was a coincidence rather than by design, as it was later, during the making of the film, that Harrison became interested in Indian music (it seems the decidedly un-PC comedy Indian characters in Help! had their uses after all). The middle-eight was your more standard Beatles fare, but I can still find the switch back to the main riff spine-tingling, even after all these years. The ‘My baby don’t care’ refrain in the coda is a thrilling climax, with great guitar licks from McCartney.

Ticket to Ride enjoyed a lengthy (by 1965 standards – most number 1s only lasted a week) three-week stint at the top. It was their longest track to date, running for over three minutes. Singles were getting longer, hair was getting longer, things were getting weirder. They promoted the song on Top of the Pops, and a brief clip of the performance was also shown on Doctor Who in May, as part of the story The Chase.

The most famous performance of the song was in their second movie. By the time of its release it was known as Help!, and Ticket to Ride featured in a sequence in which the band learned to ski in the Austrian Alps while also avoiding the assassins attempting to steal Ringo’s ring. A highly influential part of the film, some say it was a big influence on the idea of music videos and eventually MTV.

As I mentioned in my blog for I Feel Fine though, the Beatles were already making promo films to save them having to be everywhere at once. That November, they made promos for their next single, Day Tripper/We Can Work It Out, and also made one for Ticket to Ride to feature on a festive edition of Top of the Pops. The foursome mimed in front of a backdrop of large tickets, with John, Paul and George sat in director’s chairs.

She Loves You is perhaps the greatest pop song of all time, but I think Ticket to Ride may be my favourite song of the early years of the Beatles. Time will never dull its magnificence.

Written by: John Lennon & Paul McCartney

Producer: George Martin

Weeks at number 1: 3 (22 April-12 May)

Births:

Actress Anna Chancellor – 27 April 
Television presenter Alice Beer – 1 May 
Wrestler Darren Matthews – 10 May

Deaths:

Welsh novelist Howard Spring – 3 May

151. The Beatles – From Me to You (1963)

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‘Where are we going, lads?’
 ‘To the toppermost of the poppermost, Johnny!’

When the Beatles were feeling in need of a pep talk, Paul, George and Ringo would ask this question to John, and that would be his answer. The Beatles. The biggest and best-selling band of all time. A gang of four that changed popular music and culture for the better. A rare time for the charts in which the mainstream was a showcase for some of the most inventive, innovative and intelligent pop music the world has ever known, and that’s in large part thanks to John, Paul, George and Ringo. Beatlemania and Merseybeat conquered the number 1 position of the charts like nothing before or since, and in total the Beatles scored 17 number 1s – more than any other group to this date. They also conquered America and changed music there too, something no UK act had yet done. By the time the Fab Four split, pop had grown up and become an art form. Their break-up left a void that took some time to fill.

As a teenager, 1963 was my musical year zero, and as a 16-year-old in 1995, I was envious of anyone that was my age when the Beatles were ruling the charts. Working on this blog has, if anything, made that envy more intense. Up to this point, bar the classics, many of these artists and songs have been new to me. I’ve been looking forward to blogging about the Beatles for so long, and now I’m here – what do you write about a band that’s been written about more than any other?

I’ve already covered many key aspects of the Beatles’ pre-fame years, and the story has been told countless times in books, film and TV, but for those who are unaware, 16-year-old Liverpudlian John Lennon formed a skiffle group with school friends known as the Quarrymen in 1957. That summer, Lennon met Paul McCartney for the first time, and soon after he became their rhythm guitarist. The following year, his friend, George Harrison auditioned for them on a bus and became their lead guitarist. By 1959 the other band members had left, and the trio became known as Johnny and the Moondogs. In January 1960, Lennon persuaded his art school friend Stuart Sutcliffe to buy a bass guitar, and he suggested they become the Beatals, as a tribute to the Crickets. In May they became the Silver Beetles, by July they were the Silver Beatles, and finally in August they settled on the Beatles. That month they hired Pete Best as their drummer and their unofficial manager Allan Williams arranged a residency for them in Hamburg, Germany.

For two years they would return there, and perform through the night, often relying on the drug Preludine to keep them going. Sutcliffe preferred to focus on being an artist and left the group early in 1961, so Paul McCartney became the bassist. Sutcliffe later died of an aneurysm, aged only 21. 

Later that year they made their recording debut as the Beat Brothers, backing Tony Sheridan. That November, Brian Epstein saw the band performing at the Cavern Club. The canny local record store owner saw an inherent star quality in the foursome, and he became their manager in January 1962. He began trying to organise them a UK record deal, but Decca told them guitar groups were ‘on their way out’. Three months later they signed to Parlophone and got lucky in finding a sympathetic producer in George Martin, who, like Epstein, knew there was something special about this group. However, he wasn’t sure about the drummer, and neither was Epstein, or the others, so Best was sacked and replaced with Ringo Starr from Rory Storm and the Hurricanes.

Finally, things fell into place, despite a shaky start between Martin and Ringo on debut single Love Me Do.  On Martin’s advice the band sped up their song Please Please Me and it became their second single, and it was a smash-hit, reaching number 1 on several charts in early 1963 – but not the chart that is now considered to be official (see my blog on How Do You Do It? for further info). Around this time, Epstein encouraged the foursome to clean up their act if they wanted to be really big, and they became more family friendly by dressing in suits, and ceasing swearing on stage. Parlophone wanted to capitalise on Please Please Me‘s success, and they swiftly recorded their debut album with the same name in one long session, climaxing in their raw version of Twist and Shout.

Paul and John had written From Me to You on a coach while they were on tour with Helen Shapiro. They had been inspired by ‘From You to Us’, the name of the letters section in the New Musical Express. Back then, McCartney and Lennon’s songs (this song dates from before they swapped their surnames around in their credits) were often written face to face and From Me to You was no exception. Lennon later recalled coming up with the first line, in the famous Playboy interview shortly before he was murdered in 1980. He also said it was originally much bluesier, and it seems they weren’t too enamoured with it at first. Neither was singer Kenny Lynch, who was also on the coach. When he heard the band performing their falsettos – soon to become one of their trademarks, he allegedly branded them a bunch of ‘fucking fairies’.

Nonetheless, Martin asked the band for a song as strong as Please Please Me, and they presented him with this. He suggested the harmonica, and for the vocal addition to the opening lick, and this achieves something rarely (if ever) achieved by a number 1 up to this point. The recording starts with the entire group performing its raw opening with the catchy refrain presented upfront, almost as if the listener has walked into the song halfway through its performance.

From Me To You is for me their least impressive single. It’s not as effective as the bluesy Love Me Do and deceptively filthy Please Please Me (have another listen if you don’t believe that’s a song about oral sex). Lyrically it’s okay, but pretty basic lightweight pop by their later high standards. However, it is structurally unusual, which is something the Beatles were good at doing without even seemingly trying, and although I’m no musician and am poor on musical terms, it is something recognisable even to idiots like myself. The Everly Brothers-inspired harmonies are in place and a stand-out, and the falsettos add a layer of excitement that teenage girls understood, even if Lynch didn’t. From Me to You became the band’s first officially recognised number 1 single, and stayed there for seven weeks – longer than any other song that year. During its reign, their debut album also went to number 1. They were toppermost of the poppermost, but they were only getting started.

In the news during that spring and summer: National Service ended, with the last servicemen released from conscription on 7-13 May, and on 5 June, John Profumo, Secretary of State for War, admits to misleading Parliament over his affair with the model Christine Keeler. The UK wasn’t used to political scandals like this yet, and it’s believed the Profumo affair caused the Government irreparable damage.

In the world of football, Everton won the Football League First Division title on 11 May, and four days later, Spurs became the first British team to win a European trophy when they defeated Atlético Madrid 5-1 to take the European Cup Winners Cup. Ten days later, Mancehster United beat Leicester City 3-1 in the FA Cup final. An emotional victory for a team which was nearly wiped out in the Munich air disaster five years ago.

Written by: Paul McCartney & John Lennon

Producer: George Martin

Weeks at number 1: 7 (2 May-19 June)

Births:

Actress Natasha Richardson – 11 May
Actor Jason Isaacs – 6 June

Deaths:

Novelist John Cowper Powys – 17 June 

70. Marvin Rainwater – Whole Lotta Woman (1958)

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On 30 April 1958, the Life Peerages Act allowed the creation of life peers who could sit in the House of Lords. As women could become life peers, the act made it possible for women to sit in the House of Lords for the first time. On the same day, the musical My Fair Lady opened at Drury Lane Theatre in London, starring Rex Harrison and Julie Andrews. Three days later, Bolton Wanderers won the FA Cup for the fourth time with a 2-0 victory over Manchester United, a club still reeling from the Munich Air Disaster.

Enjoying a three-week stint at number 1 at the time, Marvin Rainwater’s Whole Lotta Woman was a self-penned primitive rockabilly tune. Born in Wichita, Kansas in July 1925, Rainwater had studied classical piano as a child, but he lost part of his right thumb in an accident as a teenager. He trained to be a vet, but after his stint in the Navy during World War Two, he decided to try the guitar. Claiming to be 25 percent Cherokee, he cut a unique figure when he began wearing his trademark buckskin jacket and headband on stage, and writing his own songs. He won the TV talent show Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts in 1955, and from there a recording contract with MGM swiftly followed. Combining country and western with the emerging rockabilly sound, and with an imposing physique and unique, craggy good looks, Rainwater had natural star quality, and scored hits with Gonna Find Me a Bluebird and The Majesty of Love, a duet with future number 1 artist Connie Francis.

Whole Lotta Woman is a primitive rocker with simple, sexually-charged lyrics that only just made it past censorship (the BBC let it go, some of the US broadcasters wouldn’t touch it). The most interesting aspect of the recording is probably Rainwater’s raucous, double-tracked vocals, and the duelling electric guitar and piano instrumental break. Not bad, but it suffers coming after a run of interesting, more famous chart-toppers.

Rainwater’s follow-up, I Dig You Baby, made the top 20, but he failed to repeat his early flourish of success. He began recording material with his younger sister, Patty, but around this time he developed ongoing throat problems. His voice suffered, and MGM let him go. He went into semi-retirement to rest his voice, recording sporadically for other labels. Changing tastes and lack of momentum caused his career to stall, and eventually he was diagnosed with throat cancer. He recovered from this, but his career didn’t. Sadly, his final recording sessions remain unissued due to the dire state of his voice, and by then he was living in a caravan with his family on wasteland in Minnesota. He died of heart failure in 2013, aged 88. His guitar-playing had inspired many however – back in Rainwater’s glory days, a teenage guitarist called Brian Rankin was waiting in the shadows to make his mark on rock’n’roll, and he was quite the fan. He even changed his name to Hank Marvin.

Written by: Marvin Rainwater

Producer: Jim Vinneau

Weeks at number 1: 3 (25 April-15 May)

Births:

Singer Fish – 25 April
Presenter Sandi Toksvig – 3 May 

Deaths:

Cricketer Frank Foster – 3 May 

68. Michael Holliday – The Story of My Life (1958)

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Jailhouse Rock ran out of steam after three weeks at the top, and after two barnstormers, the number 1 spot was taken by this pleasant easy listening ditty – the first bestseller from the legendary partnership of Burt Bacharach and Hal David, whose prolific work-rate saw them create many pop classics of the 1950s and particularly the 60s.

Bacharach had spent his teenage years enthralled with jazz, and went on to study music. After a tour of duty he became Vic Damone’s (who had a number 1 later in 1958 with On the Street Where You Live) pianist and conductor. Bacharach later worked with Marlene Dietrich, before meeting lyricist and former journalist Hal David at the Brill Building. US country star Marty Robbins initially recorded The Story of My Life in 1957, but it was Michael Holliday’s cover that became famous on these shores.

Holliday was born Norman Alexander Milne in Liverpool in 1924. His music career began when he won a local talent contest. He joined the navy and won another contest, this time in New York, inspiring him to turn professional. Before leaving the navy, however, he found time to smuggle obscure jazz records back home, where they were sold by Elvis Costello’s mother. Holliday made his TV debut in the summer of 1955, and he soon found himself with a record deal, and with his screen idol looks and voice comparable to Bing Crosby, he enjoyed moderate success, before this, his first of two number 1s. Before it all went wrong for him.

I’ve always admired Bacharach and David’s work, and even though a lot of easy listening music leaves me cold, there’s usually enough in their songs to keep me interested. The Story of My Life is slushy and somewhat of a throwback to earlier number 1s, but I can’t help but enjoy the whistling and sentimental lyrics. And Holliday performs it well. A pretty good start for the duo, with another chart-topper to follow.

Sadly as The Story of My Life‘s fortnight at the top was drawing to a close, another of Busby’s Babes died as a result of the Munich Air Disaster. Manchester United’s Duncan Edwards was only 21, and was considered by many to be the finest footballer in England. He passed away on 21 February. Six days later, the 23rd and final victim was claimed when co-pilot Kenneth Rayment died in hospital.

Written by: Burt Bacharach & Hal David

Producer: Norrie Paramor

Weeks at number 1: 2 (14-27 February)

Births:

Actor James Wilby – 20 February 

Deaths:

Footballer Duncan Edwards – 21 February

67. Elvis Presley – Jailhouse Rock (1958)

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On 6 February, 1958, British European Airways Flight 609 crashed on its third attempt to take off from Munich-Riem Airport in West Germany. Slush on the runway caused the plane to smash through a fence, and it then hit a house, tearing the left win off. On board the craft were the Manchester United football team, then known as ‘Busby’s Babes’ after their manager, Matt Busby, along with supporters and journalists. The team hadn’t been beaten for 11 matches and were one of the best in the country. 20 people died at the scene of the Munich Air Disaster that day, and one on the way to hospital. Among them were seven of Busby’s Babes. Bobby Charlton and Busby were among the survivors, but the manager and several other players were seriously injured. 

Number 1 at the time of this terrible event was Elvis Presley’s second chart-topper, Jailhouse Rock. It had made history as the first single to do straight in at number 1 (and did so again when it was re-released in 2005 – making it the first single to repeat the feat). It deserved to. Unlike All Shook Up, which I was rather lukewarm about, Jailhouse Rock is certainly a classic, and one of Presley’s best songs.

The title track of Elvis’s latest film, it had been written by one of the most famous songwriting partnerships of all time – Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller. They had worked with him before, but it was on this film that they developed a close working relationship. The singer came to regard them as his ‘good-luck charm’, and Lieber and Stoller were impressed by his knowledge of black music after initial reservations about his authenticity.

Like Jerry Lee Lewis’s Great Balls of Fire, Jailhouse Rock has an excellent intro that grabs from the get-go. Unlike that song, which rocks immediately, the tension builds, with Elvis starting the story behind that famous beat, before kicking into gear with the chorus. As catchy as the song is, and the band put in a great performance, the key here is Elvis’s delivery. It’s possibly his finest vocal performance, and it’s a damn shame he never let rip quite like this again. Lyrically, it’s a bit of a novelty song – the kind Lieber and Stoller enjoyed writing for The Coasters. Elvis plays it completely straight, and you’re too busy enjoying the performance to take too much notice of the silly lyrics. Notably, it’s the first song to contain homosexual references at number 1:

‘Number forty-seven said to number three
“You’re the cutest jailbird I ever did see
I sure would be delighted with your company
Come on and do the Jailhouse Rock with me”‘

In a decade in which previous number 1 Answer Me got into trouble purely for using God’s name, this seems somewhat surprising. You could look at it as progress, but it’s perhaps more likely to have either been considered a joke or was missed by everyone enjoying the song too much at the time. There’s also a reference to real-life mobsters The Purple Gang in there, too.

Jailhouse Rock is the sound of a legendary artist at the top of his game, and I ‘get’ Elvis completely when I hear this. It’s such a shame he became stuck doing so many saccharine ballads for films as the years went by.

Written by: Jerry Leiber & Mike Stoller

Producer: Steve Sholes

Weeks at number 1: 3 (24 January-13 February)

Births:

Musician Jools Holland – 24 January
Comedian Linda Smith – 29 January
British broadcasting executive Michael Jackson – 11 February
Scientist Steve Grand – 12 February 

Deaths:

Manchester United players and associates in the Munich air disaster – 6 February: Roger Byrne (team captain), Geoff Bent, Eddie Colman, Mark Jones, David Pegg, Tommy Taylor, Billy Whelan, Frank Swift (journalist and former Manchester City and England goalkeeper)
Suffragette Christabel Pankhurst – 13 February 

57. Lonnie Donegan & His Skiffle Group – Cumberland Gap (1957)

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It’s only now that I finally get just why skiffle was so influential. There had been no number 1 like Cumberland Gap before. At forty seconds in when Lonnie Donegan moves the song up a gear and it enters a breakneck speed, going so fast that he becomes breathless, you see why a genre that was fashionable for such a brief time inspired a generation of great musicians. It has been argued that Cumberland Gap was the first punk number 1, and it’s a very strong argument. This is a million miles away from Here in my Heart.

Lonnie Donegan was born Anthony James Donegan in Bridgeton, Glasgow in 1931. He bought his first guitar at 14, as World War Two came to an end. He took a keen interest in jazz, folk, country and blues. Trad jazz bandleader Chris Barber had heard he was good on the banjo and asked him for an audition. Donegan had never played a banjo, but bought one and passed the audition anyway. In 1952 he formed his own band, the Tony Donegan Jazzband, and after opening for blues musician Lonnie Johnson, Donegan took his first name in tribute. By 1953, he was in Ken Colyer’s Jazzmen with Barber. During the intervals of their shows, Donegan took to providing a ‘skiffle break’. The name derived from a New Orleans term for house parties that were organised to pay the rent. These interludes soon had the crowd more excited than the main sets. Donegan, with backing from a tea-chest bass and washboard from other band members, would play storming renditions of old blues songs by Lead Belly and Woody Guthrie. It’s very likely that Cumberland Gap was among this material. It was only a matter of time before Donegan broke free and went solo.

Easily the oldest song to reach number 1 to date, Cumberland Gap‘s origins are shrouded in mystery. It’s an Appalachian folk tune that likely dates back to the latter half of the 19th century, but I’d put money on it being Woody Guthrie’s recording that Donegan was aware of. Originally concerning a mountain pass at the juncture of Tennessee, Virginia and Kentucky used by migrants in the 18th century, Donegan has fun with the lyric, referring to the county in northwest England instead and claiming the Gap is ‘Fifteen miles from Middlesborough’.

Despite Rock Island Line coming first, and being understandably perhaps the most famous skiffle song ever, I think I prefer Cumberland Gap, maybe because of the fact I’ve been comparing it to number 1s that came before, which can only amplify how good it is, or perhaps due to the wordplay. There’s not a lot of difference between the two, which is why skiffle didn’t last long, but that doesn’t really matter. Both songs create an almighty racket on such basic instruments, don’t outstay their welcome, and show so much other material from the time as being out-of-date and too restrained. And it still sounds fresh, unlike Rock Around the Clock. You can see why Bill Haley soon started to look old-fashioned, and Donegan’s DIY ethic was bound to become more inspiring. Skiffle’s inspiring qualities were instant. By this point, John Lennon had formed the Quarrymen, and during Donegan’s next run at the top, Paul McCartney joined the group.

During Cumberland Gap‘s impressive five-week stint at number 1, John Bodkin Adams shocked the nation by being found not guilty in court on 15 April. It is still believed that Adams was a forerunner of Dr Harold Shipman, and may have killed over a hundred patients, but that political interference caused him to be set free. On 20 April, Manchester United retained the First Division title in the Football League, but lost against Aston Villa in the FA Cup final on 4 May, narrowly missing out on becoming the first team to win the double that century. On 24 April the BBC broadcast astronomy series The Sky at Night, with the legendary Patrick Moore at the helm right from the start.

Written by: Traditional

Producer: Alan A Freeman

Weeks at number 1: 5 (12 April-16 May)

Births:

Author Nick Hornby – 17 April
Cricketer Graeme Fowler – 20 April
Actor Daniel Day-Lewis – 29 April
Comedian Jo Brand – 3 May
Sex Pistols bassist Sid Vicious – 10 May