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

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

251. The Rolling Stones – Jumpin’ Jack Flash (1968)

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On 25 June 1968, comic legend Tony Hancock was found dead. He had long struggled with bouts of depression, and since moving to Sydney, Australia, his career hadn’t gone as well as he hoped. Hancock committed suicide with a cocktail of vodka and tablets, leaving a note which said ‘Things just seemed to go wrong too many times.”

Not so long ago, the Rolling Stones were a pretty regular occurrence on this blog, but following one of their finest number 1s, Paint It, Black in 1966, the band suffered some dark times over the next two years.

Have You Seen Your Mother, Baby, Standing in the Shadow? reached the top five, which was an impressive feat for such a ragged, messy production. 1967 also got Jagger and co off to a great start, with the double A-side Let’s Spend the Night Together/Ruby Tuesday hitting number three in January, and their album Between the Buttons was also released. It saw the group delve deeper into studio experimentation, and has become somewhat forgotten over the years, which is a shame. It was to be the last time they worked on a full album with producer Andrew Loog Oldham.

1967 saw the biggest bands of the time embracing drugs, but because the Rolling Stones had a reputation as the bad boys of pop, the press and police decided they were the group to pick on. Over the next few months, members of the Stones would be raided by police, while newspapers ran exposes on their alleged sordid activity. Oldham was so freaked out by all the attention, he fled to the US. Tensions within the Stones were also growing, with Brian Jones’s girlfriend Anita Pallenberg ditching him for Keith Richards.

That spring, Jagger, Richards and Jones all faced prison sentences for drugs. Jagger and Richards were imprisoned but released on bail the following day. Surprisingly, The Times stuck up for them, running the famous editorial ‘Who breaks a buttterfly upon a wheel?”. While they awaited their appeal hearings, the group recorded the single We Love You as a thank-you to their loyal fans. Much underrated, the song features John Lennon and Paul McCartney on backing vocals. Oasis should have covered this, back in the day.

With all three free in December, the band released their answer to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Sadly, the mostly self-produced Their Satanic Majesties Request fell flat. It sounded rather forced by comparison. It turned off fans and critics alike. Having said that, it’s not as bad as the reputation it has gathered over the years suggests. The bad acid trip 2000 Light Years from Home is excellent and She’s a Rainbow is a lovely slice of flower power.

With the band smarting from the unusually negative feedback of their recent work, they were clever and lucky enough to know that a change was in the air, and like many of the top artists, they went back to basics as they set to work on what would become one of their best albums, Beggars Banquet.  They knew they had struck gold with Jumpin’ Jack Flash, and decided to release it long before the album was ready. The Rolling Stones were serving notice. They were back, and then some.

The lyrics to Jumpin’ Jack Flash came about while Jagger and Richards were staying at Richards’ country house. They were woken one morning by gardener Jack Dyer trudging past a window. A startled Jagger asked what the noise was and the guitarist replied ‘Oh that’s Jack – that’s jumpin’ Jack.’ Playing around on the guitar, Richards played around with the phrase, with Jagger adding ‘Flash’.

At least, that’s the story the songwriters have given over the years. Bassist Bill Wyman feels he deserves a credit too, claiming he came up with the main riff while messing around on a piano. Jones and Charlie Watts began jamming along, and an impressed Jagger and Richards entered the studio before working on the lyrics.

Whatever the jumping-off (pardon the pun) point, the band came up with something special. Jumpin’ Jack  Flash is a blistering return to form, full of dark imagery, so dark it was actually comical, like much of Jagger’s best material is. And whoever wrote that riff, it’s up there with (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction. The reference of being ‘born in a crossfire hurricane’ was a reference to Richards being born during the Blitz. Theories as to what’s exactly going on lyrically are probably delving too deep. What’s clear is the band are shaking off the bad acid trips and negative experiences of 1967, and are ready to let rip once more with their own take on the blues. Jumpin’ Jack Flash is the personification of all the bad shit, and he’s been to hell and back in his life, but ‘it’s alright now’. Personally, I wonder if Jack is actually dead and living it up in hell, but it’s just an idea.

One thing’s for sure, after being in the Beatles’ shadow in 1967, this is a better number 1 than Lady Madonna. Unusually, that’s Richards on the bass, with Wyman on the Hammond organ as the song draws to an end. Their new producer Jimmy Miller created one of the most primitive-sounding Stones singles since Loog Oldham was finding his feet a few years previous. Miller also helps out on the backing vocals at the end.

A month after its release, the Rolling Stones were at number 1 for the seventh time. Up above you can see one of the promos they made, in which they mime the song while wearing lots of make-up. They look as cool as fuck. Jagger also occasionally adds some live interjections to proceedings. By the time they got to number 1 for the last time, Jones was dead.

In a mighty catalogue of classics, Jumpin’ Jack Flash stands out as the song they turn to when performing live most often, and they tend to open most shows with it, even after all those years. They choose wisely, as it’s always going to be guaranteed to set the scene and get any crowd in the mood to witness rock legends.

Richards and Wood joined Aretha Franklin on a cover of the song used on the film bearing its name, starring Whoopie Goldberg in 1986. Other covers range from the surreal (386 DX) to the impressive (Ananda Shankar).

Written by: Mick Jagger & Keith Richards

Producer: Jimmy Miller

Weeks at number 1: 2 (19 June-2 July)

Births:

Welsh footbaler Iwan Roberts – 26 June
Actor Adam Woodyatt – 28 June

Deaths:

Writer WE Johns – 21 June
Comedian Tony Hancock – 25 June

234. Procol Harum – A Whiter Shade of Pale (1967)

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We’re now into the Summer of Love, and in the final, stormy week of June 1967 a landmark event happened, involving, erm, Reg Varney from On the Buses. The comedy actor became the first person to use a cash machine in the world, at Barclays Bank in Enfield. Trippy, man. Two days later Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones was jailed for a year for possession of drugs, and Mick Jagger was sentenced to three months for the same offence.

July began with BBC Two transmitting the first colour TV broadcasts in Britain, during live coverage of the Wimbledon Championships.  It was the final year in which the competition was amateur, and Australian John Newcombe won the men’s tournament, with American Billie Jean King winning the women’s. During Wimbledon, on 7 July, Parliament decriminalised private acts of consensual adult male homosexuality in England and Wales with the Sexual Offences Act.

In the singles chart, after months of rather lightweight pop ruling the charts, Procul Harum went to number 1 with their woozy, hazy classic debut single A Whiter Shade of Pale, on 8 June – the same day the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band topped the album charts for the first time. For the counterculture, it must have felt like the future was theirs for the taking.

Procul Harum formed from the ashes of the Paramounts, a beat group from Southend-on-Sea in Essex. They had reached number 35 in 1964 with their cover of Lieber and Stoller’s Poison Ivy, but split in 1966. Their singer, Gary Brooker, formed his new group in April 1967, and the line-up featured Keith Reid, a poet who would write their lyrics, Matthew Fisher on Hammond organ, guitarist Ray Royer and bassist David Knights. Their manager, Guy Stevens (later to come up with Mott the Hoople’s name and co-produce the Clash’s album London Calling) said they should name themselves after producer Gus Dudgeon’s cat. Dudgeon produced classic work from the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, David Bowie and Elton John. His Burmese pet’s ‘cat fancy’ name was Procul Harun, so they just switched the last letter.

A Whiter Shade of Pale originated at a party Brooker attended. He heard someone say to a woman’ you’ve turned a whiter shade of pale’, and the phrase stuck in his mind. Although the lyrics are full of Bob Dylan-style, mysterious imagery, it’s clear the song is about a man, a woman, and sex. Brooker admitted in the February 2008 issue of Uncut that it was a ‘girl-leaves-boy story’, wrapped up in evocative imagery. He also said that although he may have been smoking at the time, the song was inspired by books, not drugs. Reid must have also had a say in the words though, as he recieved co-credit at the time and didn’t play an instrument.

Matthew Fisher didn’t receive a credit for his integral organ contribution until 2009 in a court ruling. As interesting as the lyrics are, it’s fair to say the song wouldn’t be as famous as it was without his playing, inspired by Bach’s Air on the G string.

Procul Harum convened to record their first single at Olympic Sound Studios in London soon after formation. So soon, they hadn’t yet found a drummer, so session musician Bill Eyden took up the sticks. Produced by Denny Cordell, it was quickly wrapped up in two takes. A few days later they had a drummer, Bobby Harrison, and tried a new version, but opted to release one of their earlier takes in mono only. Cordell was worried about the single’s length and slightly muddy recording, until he sent an acetate to Radio London. John Peel was working for the station at the time, and fell immediately in love with it.

WIth its stately pace, dreamlike feel and surreal lyrics, A Whiter Shade of Pale is a perfect example of a song capturing the zeitgeist. It’s a great song, but it could only have been number 1 for six weeks at that moment in time. The fact it was there at the start of the Summer of Love has elevated its status, possibly making it a touch overrated, but it’s a very impressive debut and a great time capsule of flower power.

Much of British psychedelia harked back to an earlier time, to childhood memories, or even further back to Victorian and Edwardian styles. But the chorus of A Whiter Shade of Pale goes even further back, to Chaucer’s The Miller’s Tale from the 14th century. Critics may complain the words are meaningless, but frankly, they need to get out more. It’s about the feeling they create, rather than a story being told. There’s some excellent acid-laced lines, including the introductory ‘We skipped the light fandango’ and ‘One of sixteen vestal virgins’. When performed live, the song sometimes featured a further two verses, which I’d be interested to hear.

Brooker’s vocal is also great, with his soulful, mournful tones adding to the elegiac tone. In fact, if you ignore the lyrics and just listen to the sound, there are some similarities to Percy Sledge’s beautiful When a Man Loves a Woman.

Procul Harum shot several promotional videos for the single, and if you click above you can see the first, which the band minus Harrison shot in the ruins of Witley Court in Worcestershire. Peter Clifton’s film was banned by Top of the Pops due to the splicing in of footage of the Vietnam war.

Following A Whiter Shade of Pale‘s immense success, Procul Harum were one of the bands of 1967. The single was loved by John Lennon and Paul McCartney, with Lennon in particular becoming obsessed that summer. Their first gig saw them supporting the Jimi Hendrix Experience. The line-up soon changed, with Harrison and Royer leaving to form Freedom. They were replaced by former Paramounts BJ Wilson and Robin Trower respectively. Follow-up single Homburg, released that September, reached number six, despite Peel preferring it to their previous 7-inch. They finished the year with their eponymous debut album in December.

It wasn’t until September 1968 that their second album came out. Shine On Brightly is considered one of the earliest examples of a progressive rock album, with the album closer, In Held ‘Twas in I, lasting over 17 minutes. 1969’s A Salty Dog went further down that route, and Fisher, who produced it, departed soon after. and was replaced by another former Paramount, Chris Copping.

In the 1970s, they fell into a pattern of further line-up changes and ever decreasing album sales, embarking on a full-on symphonic progressive rock sound. Their final top 20 hit was Pandora’s Box in 1975. They split up in 1977, but two months later they were performing at the BRIT Awards, when A Whiter Shade of Pale was named Best British Pop Single 1952-1977, along with Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody.

Procul Harum reformed in 1991, and have remained together ever since, with Brooker the only constant throughout. In 2017 they released their 13th album, Novum. While they were unable to continue with their initial popularity, A Whiter Shade of Pale is still considered one of the best songs of that heady summer, when music branched out and for a while it seemed as though anything was possible.

Written by: Gary Brooker, Keith Reid & Matthew Fisher

Producer: Denny Cordell

Weeks at number 1: 6 (8 June-18 July) 

Births:

Darts player Kevin Painter -2 July
Television writer Paul Cornell – 18 July

Deaths:

Actress Vivien Leigh – 7 July
Cyclist Tom Simpson – 13 July 

220. Chris Farlowe – Out of Time (1966)

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Sporting history was made on 30 July 1966 at Wembley Stadium, as we all know, when England defeated West Germany 4-2 to lift the Jules Rimet World Cup for the only time to date, with a hat-trick from Geoff Hurst – the only instance of one in a World Cup final to date, and another goal from Martin Peters. 32.30 million people saw it on television across the country, making it still the most-watched event ever on UK TV.

Appropriately enough for West Germany, the number 1 at the time was Out of Time. It was credited to Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, and originally released by the Rolling Stones in April that year on their album Aftermath. This brilliantly bitter and spiteful track aimed at an ex-partner was then covered by blues and soul singer Chris Farlowe, and it was his version that hit the top of the pops that summer.

Farlowe was born John Henry Deighton in October 1940. Raised in Islington, North London, he was a big fan of skiffle legend Lonnie Donegan as a teenager, and formed the John Henry Skiffle Group in 1957. He began the group as their guitarist as well as singer, but gave up the guitar to focus on his vocal talent. A year later he joined the Johnny Burns Rhythm and Blues Quartet, and around this time he took the name Chris Farlowe, in tribute to bop guitarist Tal Farlow. In 1959 he teamed up with a rock’n’roll group called the Thunderbirds and together they built up a reputation as a formidable live act and began to concentrate on an R’n’B sound. Unfortunately they couldn’t translate gig popularity into chart success. Among the members of Farlowe’s backing band were future star guitarist Albert Lee.

Farlowe eventually jumped ship to Rolling Stones producer Andrew Loog Oldham’s Immediate Records label, which proved a canny move, as in January 1966 he was in the top 40 with Think, a Jagger and Richards track which they later chose to re-record for Aftermath.

Opening with the arch string arrangement of Arthur Greenslade, Farlowe’s version of Out of Time beats the Stones original. Fans of the band may strongly disagree, but to me, the Aftermath recording is too long, and rather empty-sounding. Brian Jones’s marimba is an interesting sound in a pop song, but it’s not enough to hold my interest for over five minutes, and it can’t beat Greenslade’s work. Plus, it’s Jagger at the mixing desk for the production anyway, who clearly thought his song would make for a great pop hit. He was right.

Jagger’s sarcastic, disdainful vocal on Aftermath is excellent, but Farlowe edges it with a gutsy, bluesy performance. There’s an element of glee in the way he encourages the listener to join in with the chorus, which as well as ramping up the pop, makes the nastiness of the lyric that much nastier. This woman must have really treated the protagonist like shit, to be treated so badly afterwards.

There’s an all-star cast at work on Farlowe’s recording. In addition to Jagger and Greenslade (who later did the fantastic arrangement on Je t’aime… moi non plus a year later), there’s session guitarists Joe Moretti and Jimmy Page. Moretti, the man behind the classic guitar sound of Shakin’ All Over, contributes some lovely Spanish-sounding licks. Andy White, who played on the album version of Love Me Do, is the man behind that great aggressive drumming along with the strings.

The Stones-Farlowe connection continued, with further covers of Paint It Black and (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction. His second most notable single was Handbags and Gladrags in 1968. Written by Manfred Mann’s Mike d’Abo especially for him, it’s now best known as the theme tune to the BBC sitcom The Office.

His time as a pop star came to an end by the time the 1970s began, and Farlowe joined jazz-rock group Colosseum in 1970, recording a couple of albums. In 1972 he became a member of rock group Atomic Rooster, consisting of former members of the Crazy World of Arthur Brown, including future prog-rock giant Carl Palmer (although he had left by the time Farlowe joined). Later he provided vocals for the last series of BBC drama Gangsters in 1978. In the 80s, Page, by now a post-Led Zeppelin rock legend, returned the favour of his Out of Time appearance by giving Farlowe appearances on his soundtrack to Death Wish II (1982) and solo album Outrider in 1988. As of 2019, Farlowe still records and performs live.

Out of Time was released as a single by the Rolling Stones in the 70s – but it wasn’t their Aftermath version. Controversial former manager Allen Klein owned their pre-1971 back catalogue, and supervised a bastardised version in which the backing music to Farlowe’s single was married to a vocal that Jagger had recorded as a demo guide for Farlowe. It was included on his 1975 compilation of Rolling Stones outtakes, Metamorphosis, and is better than it deserves to be.

Other covers down the years have come from the Bee Gees in 1966, Del Shannon in 1981, the Ramones in 1994, and the Manic Street Preachers in 2002. This most recent version is particularly good and apes the Farlowe version well, right down to the Beach Boys-esque backing vocal.

Written by: Mick Jagger & Keith Richards

Producer: Mick Jagger

Weeks at number 1: 1 (28 July-3 August)

Births:

Rugby player Paul Loughlin – 28 July

215. The Rolling Stones – Paint It, Black (1966)

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1965 had been a phenomenal year for the Rolling Stones, and saw them established as the biggest rivals to the Beatles for the pop crown, despite the nihilism of rock classics (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction and Get Off of My Cloud. That December they began work on their fourth album Aftermath. Originally conceived as the soundtrack to an abandoned film, the Stones had much more time than usual to work on this album, and it showed. For the first time they released an album feauring songs only written by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, and they experimented with their sound. Featuring Mother’s Little Helper, Lady Jane, Under My Thumb and Out of Time, it’s easily their best album up to this point and perhaps their best to date.

Recorded during the same sessions in March 1966, and released as the opening track of the US version of Aftermath, Paint It, Black took the Rolling Stones into new territory, and remains a real stand-out track.

Initially it had been written with a standard rock-pop arrangement, and lyrically Jagger was continuing on the dark path of their previous two singles, but this time his disgust with the world had a reason. I only recently realised Paint It, Black specifically relates to a loved one’s sudden death, rather than general malaise and depression. Of course it was there, right in front of me, from the very start, if I’d taken proper notice of Jagger’s lyrics. The ‘line of cars and they are painted black’ refers to the funeral, and ‘I could not forsee this thing happening to you’ suggests how unexpected the death was. Something the band were to experience themselves soon… Although Jagger has never said who the song refers to, many believe it concerns a soldier in Vietnam, which is backed up by Stanley Kubrick playing it over the credits of Full Metal Jacket in 1987.

Fooling around with the song in the studio, Bill Wyman played on the organ and Charlie Watts improvised a double-time drum beat that became the song’s distinctive, unusual gallop. The band decided this rhythm would make a nice counterpoint to the bleak lyrics.

The key ingredient that elevates Paint It, Black to a classic, however, came from Brian Jones. Frustrated with his decline in importance to the band, and with Jagger and Richards now in charge, he began experimenting with new instruments and sounds. To compliment the new Moroccan feel to the song, he laid sitar over the top. Inspired by George Harrison, he was taught by Harihar Rao, a disciple of Ravi Shankar. The Beatles get all the credit for popularising the sitar, but Paint It, Black was one of the first pop songs to do so too, and the best for the time being. The whole band put in excellent performances, from Richards’ flamenco opening to the finale, in which Wyman goes crazy on the bass.

Released on 13 May, Paint It, Black quickly knocked the sunshine of Pretty Flamingo from the top of the pops, and cast a dark cloud over the optimism of the spring and summer of 1966. A world away from their early blues tracks, it proved the Rolling Stones could be just as effective at experimenting as the Beatles. It’s easily one of their greatest tracks, and one of the best number 1s of the 60s. However, the Rolling Stones began to hit a rocky patch after its release, and controversy and further experimentation led to their popularity sliding. Paint It, Black was their last number 1 until 1968.

And why did the title have that strange comma, adding emphasis on ‘Black’? A further sign of the darkness enveloping the group? No. It was just an error by Decca Records.

Written by: Mick Jagger & Keith Richards

Producer: Andrew Loog Oldham

Weeks at number 1: 1 (26 May-1 June)

Births:

Actress Helena Bonham Carter – 26 May

205. The Rolling Stones – Get Off of My Cloud (1965)

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In the autumn of 1965 the situation in Rhodesia degenerated so much that martial law was announced on 5 November. The UN General Assembly accepted British intent to use force if neccessary. Six days later, Ian Smith’s white majority regime unilaterally declared independence, and so on 20 November the UN Security Council recommended that all states should cease trading with Rhodesia.

Meanwhile in the pop world, Ken Dodd’s Tears was finally usurped after five weeks at the top, with a song that couldn’t be more different. The Rolling Stones were at number 1 for the third time that year with the racucous Get Off of My Cloud.

Adored by young people and critics and feared by the older generation, the Stones were now on a par with the Beatles, but rather than make the move into establishment acceptance, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards decided to write a sequel to their previous number 1, (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction. The alienation felt by Jagger was the theme once more, and it seems his band’s superstardom hadn’t improved the singer’s general mood. Richards based the tune on the Kingsmen’s classic Louie Louie and later expressed regret that Get Off of My Cloud hadn’t been slowed down. He also said it was one of Andrew Loog Oldham’s worst productions.

I’ve said before that I think a lot of early Stones recordings would have benefitted from cleaner production, but I’m not sure I agree with Richards in this instance. I think Oldham’s work around the time of Aftermath (1966) suits the darker, early-psychedelic material the Stones were coming out with, particuarly on tracks like this and Have You Seen Your Mother Baby, Standing in the Shadow? Although it would be nice to actually be able to work out what Jagger is shouting about. And I realise by typing that sentence I sound like the sort of person who would have been furious in 1965 that the Rolling Stones had knocked Ken Dodd from number 1…

Jagger is living high up on the 99th floor of an apartment block, and the first verse follows right on from (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction, with the singer complaining about commercialism through advertising. However, he wrongfoots everyone by spending the next verse complaining about the noise coming from his neighbours until the early hours. Jagger isn’t on anybody’s side here other than his own. And what’s more, he’s so bloody rich, he can afford to go for some peace and quiet and end up with loads of parking tickets. Couldn’t give a shit as long as he’s left alone. And so we have the most mean-spirited chart-topper so far, and you’ve got to admire the Rolling Stones for their chutzpah. Their stand-offishness only made them more admired.

Also in the news that November… The Murder (Abolition of Death Penalty) Act suspended capital punishment for murder in England, Scotland and Wales, for five years in the first instance, replacing it with a mandatory sentence of life imprisonment. And on 13 November the word ‘fuck’ was believed to have been spoken on British television for the first time by theatre critich Kenneth Tynan. He was taking part in a live debate on censorship on BBC Two satirical series BBC-3. No recording exists of the occurence, but despite general opinion that it was Tynan, three other moments could also be considered the first: a drunken Brendan Brehan on Panorama in 1956 (barely intelligible muttering), a man who painted railings describing his job as ‘fucking boring’ on Ulster TV’s magazine Roundabout in 1959, or actress Miriam Margolyes, who claims to have said it in frustration while taking part in ITV’s University Challenge in 1963. But really, who gives a fuck?

Written by: Mick Jagger & Keith Richards

Producer: Andrew Loog Oldham

Weeks at number 1: 3 (4-24 November)

Births:

Actor Shaun Williamson – 4 November
Comedian Sean Hughes – 10 November Sean Hughes, comedian (died 2017)
Northern Irish racecar driver Eddie Irvine – 10 November
Presenter Eddie Mair – 12 November

Deaths:

Academic Ifor Williams – 4 November
Politician George Henry Hall – 8 November