259. Mary Hopkin – Those Were the Days (1968)

26 September was the day the Theatres Act 1968 ended Draconian censorship in theatre, which enabled the famous US hippy musical Hair open in London the following day. Nevertheless, the nude scene still shocked stuffy English critics.

That week saw the start of a six-week run (the lengthiest that year) at number 1 for Mary Hopkin with Those Were the Days. The pretty Welsh folk singer with a powerful voice was the first solo female artist to top the charts since Sandie Shaw in April 1967 with Puppet on a String.

It’s interesting to note that with the exception of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, every artist to have a number 1 for the rest of the decade was never able to repeat the feat.

Born in Pontardawe in May 1950, Hopkin took singing lessons as a child and joined a local folk-rock group that became the Selby Set and Mary, who released a Welsh-language EP on their local label Cambrian. They split up after six months and Hopkin decided to go it alone.

She was initially horrified to learn her agent had booked her an audition for the ITV talent show Opportunity Knocks, as she wasn’t interested in becoming a light entertainment star. The 17-year-old was picked for the show and her reluctant appearance on 5 May 1968 was noticed by the model Twiggy. The following weekend she told Paul McCartney about Hopkin after he had mentioned the Beatles were scouting for talent for their new label Apple Records.

A telegram went to the family home, with a number to ring. Hopkin didn’t realise she was speaking to McCartney when he invited her to London to sign a contract. Her mother nearly dropped the phone when he revealed who they were speaking to. Understandably in awe, she recorded a few nervous demos for him, and a few days later became one of the first signings to the fledgling label.

Meeting with McCartney, he told her he knew just the song for her debut single, and that Donovan and the Moody Blues had been offered it but it hadn’t worked out. Paul then strummed Those Were the Days.

This nostalgic, bittersweet tune was originally a Russian song called Dorogoi dlinnoyu, meaning ‘By the road’. It had been written by Boris Fomin, with lyrics by Konstantin Podrevsky. The earliest recording is believed to date back to 1925, performed by Georgian singer Tamara Tsereteli. However, the Hopkin version featured a different set of lyrics. American musician Gene Raskin, who had loved the song when growing up, wrote new words with his wife Francesca in the early 1960s and copyrighted them in his name only. The Raskins played in London once a year, and would always close their sets with Those Were the Days. McCartney saw a performance and fell in love with the track.

He produced Hopkin’s version that July, with an arrangement by Richard Hewson that adopted a Russian feel, featuring a balalaika, cimbalom and tenor banjo. The singer and Beatles star both featured on acoustic guitar, and it’s also highly likely that Macca is on the banjo. After recording was completed, they recorded several foreign language versions, including Spanish, Italian, German and French.

It’s an unusual idea, getting an 18-year-old to sing a song that deals in the loss of youth, but not when you hear Hopkin’s performance. Her impressive, weathered vocal sounds like it belongs to someone entirely different. It’s a great production, sounding very distinct from any other number 1 really, and it’s surprising to find out it stayed at number 1 for so long. But then again, the chorus is catchy as hell, and it’s because of it that I feel I’ve known the song all my life. I’ve never taken notice of the verses before though, and I was impressed. We can all relate to that feeling of the best days being behind us, of mourning that feeling of invincibility that disspates as youth dies over the years. I particularly liked the last verse, where the singer returns to the tavern she used to frequent: ‘Just tonight I stood before the tavern/Nothing seemed the way it used to be/In the glass I saw a strange reflection/Was that lonely woman really me?’

However, it’s a little on the long side, and could probably have done with losing a minute or two. There was obviously an appetite for lengthier singles though, with Those Were the Days toppling the seven-minute-plus Hey Jude, by her own producer.

Those Were the Days was promoted as one of Apple’s ‘First Four’ and is officially the first proper single on the label, as ‘APPLE 1’ was a one-off for Ringo Starr’s wife, and Hey Jude was given a Parlophone Records catalogue number.

Around the same time, Sandie Shaw also recorded a version, but her star was on the wane, and without the backing of the Beatles, it failed to match the success of the Hopkin version.

Hopkin released her debut album, Postcard, in February 1969. Also produced by McCartney, it featured covers of songs by Donovan and Harry Nilsson. Her next single, Goodbye, credited to Lennon/McCartney but written by the latter, reached number two – ironically, it couldn’t repeat Hopkin’s earlier success, and she failed to knock Get Back from the top spot.

In 1970 she took part in the Eurovision Song Contest, and very nearly won with Knock. Knock Who’s There? But despite being the pre-contest favourite, she came second to Irish singer Dana’s All Kinds of Everything. It also reached number two in the singles chart. Hopkin was now working with Mickie Most, but her fame began to recede soon afterwards.

1971 saw her marry her new producer, Tony Visconti, and release her second album, Earth Song, Ocean Song. She was unhappy with showbusiness, and felt she achieved all she had wanted with this album, so she withdrew from the pop scene to start a family. She did however release a few songs here and there (there was another version of her number 1 among them), and would guest on her husband’s productions – most famously, it’s her you can hear singing at the start of David Bowie’s Sound and Vision from 1976.

The early 80s saw Hopkin briefly sing lead with the group Sundance. In 1981 she and Visconti divorced, and a year later she provided vocals on Vangelis’s soundtrack to sci-fi classic Blade Runner. She then joined Peter Skellern and Julian Lloyd Webber in a group called Oasis, but again, this was short-lived. Hopkin moved into acting, and in 1988 she appeared in Beatles producer George Martin’s production of Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood.

In the 90s she occasionally performed with the Chieftains, sang the theme song to Billy Connolly’s TV show World Tour of England, and re-recorded Those Were the Days with Robbie Williams rapping, apparently. I hope I never have to hear that.

Hopkin continued to release new music and archive tracks throughout the 2000s, and she appeared on her daughter Jessica Lee Morgan’s album in 2010. She also collaborated with her son Morgan Visconti that year. In August 2018 she released another version of Those Were the Days to celebrate its 50th anniversary, with its lyrics taking on an extra layer of poignancy.

Hopkin ruled the charts for the whole of October 1968, and into that November. Also in the news at the time…

On 2 October, a woman from Birmingham gave birth to the first recorded instance of live sextuplets in the UK. Three days later a civil rights marchin Derry, Northern Ireland was batoned off the streets by the Royal Ulster Constabulary, and a day later Jackie Stewart, Graham Hill and John Surtees took the first three places at the United States Grand Prix.

In further sporting action, Great Britain and Northern Ireland won five gold medals in the Olympic Games in Mexico City between 12-27 October. And also on 27 October, police clashed with protestors in an anti-Vietnam War protest outside the Embassy of the United States in London. Those were the days.

Written by: Boris Fomin & Gene Raskin

Producer: Paul McCartney

Weeks at number 1: 6 (25 September-5 November)

Births:

Actress Naomi Watts – 28 September
Bros singer Matt and drummer Luke Goss – 29 September
TV presenter Mark Durden-Smith – 1 October
Radio presenter Victoria Derbyshire – 2 October
Serial killer Beverley Allitt – 4 October
Radiohead singer Thom Yorke – 7 October
Footballer Matthew Le Tissier – 14 October

Deaths:

Publisher Stanley Unwin – 13 October
Comedian Bud Flanagan – 20 October 

178. Herman’s Hermits – I’m into Something Good (1964)

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After a run of groundbreaking singles at number 1 that were often dark, primitive and sexually charged, it was time to have a good old-fashioned love song back at the top of the charts. I’m into Something Good was the debut single of clean-cut Mancunians Herman’s Hermits. The group formed in 1963 from the ashes of the Heartbeats and orginally consisted of Keith Hopwood on rhythm guitar and backing vocals, Karl Green on lead guitar and backing vocals, Alan Wrigley on bass, Steve Titterington on drums and Peter Noone on lead vocals. Noone was only 15 but already an experienced actor due to his role in Coronation Street. Before long, Derek ‘Lek’ Leckenby and Barry Whitman from another local group, the Wailers (not those Wailers) joined on lead guitar and drums respectively. Titterington and Wrigley left, so Green moved to bass. Their new band name stemmed from a local publican once saying that Noone looked like Sherman from the cartoon series Rocky and Bullwinkle, so they removed the ‘s’ at the start and became Herman and His Hermits, before shortening it to Herman’s Hermits.

Key to the group’s success was producer Mickie Most. He had recently scored his first number 1 production with the Animals’ The House of the Rising Sun, though he always claimed he got lucky and basically just set the tape running and left it to the group. Nonetheless, Most was becoming a name. The Hermit’s manager, Harvey Lisberg, sent Most a return plane ticket from London to come up to Bolton and watch them play live. The Hermit’s, like the Animals, preferred to play R’n’B numbers, but Most reckoned these boys would work better if they stuck to a lighter pop sound and a squeaky clean image. He was right.

They decided to record I’m into Something Good, by Gerry Goffin and Carole King as their debut single. Goffin and King became one of the best pop songwriting partnerships of the early 1960s after their breakthrough Will You Love Me Tomorrow by the Shirelles. John Lennon was once quoted as saying he and Paul McCartney hoped to become England’s answer to Goffin and King, but the Beatles had become so successful, Goffin, King, and other Brill Building songwriters were beginning to suffer commercially. The original I’m into Something Good had been recorded by Earl-Jean from the Cookies, and it had sank. It had been their attempt to ape the songwriting style of Brian Wilson, as the Beach Boys had been riding high in the US charts since 1963.

You can clearly hear the Beach Boys influence in the Herman’s Hermits recording. Leckenby and Hopwood’s vocal interjections sound so close to the type of backing vocals the Beach Boys use, it’s almost plagiarism. No bad thing though. This single suffers by comparison to some of the stone-cold classic number 1s I’ve reviewed of late, but it’s hard to dislike this bright and breezy track. It’s just the right side of cheesy, and Goffin and King really knew how to write a tune, going on to write some of my favourite tracks by the Monkees, including Pleasant Valley Sunday and The Porpoise Song.

Herman’s Hermits messy split has caused confusion over the years over how many songs the group actually recorded in the studio. Jimmy Page’s name appears yet again as the rumoured guitarist, due to his popularity as a session player at the time. However Whitwam has always refuted Noone and Most’s claim, and believes these rumours have been spread by the singer and producer due to the bad blood over them losing the rights to the band’s name. Whitman and other band members insist the only addition to the group here was a session pianist.

Whoever played on it, it established the young five-piece as popular hitmakers. Lots of hits followed, including Mrs. Brown, You’ve Got a Lovely Daughter, I’m Henry VIII, I Am and No Milk Today, written by Graham Gouldman, a future 10cc founder. Noone left the group in 1971 to become a solo artist, and his first solo hit was a cover of David Bowie’s Oh! You Pretty Things, and featured Bowie on piano. I’m into Something Good became a hit for him once more in 1989 when a solo version memorably featured in the brilliant comedy film The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad! (1988) during the montage sequence featuring Leslie Nielsen and Priscilla Presley.

The Hermits soldiered on with new singer Pete Cowap. Getting nowhere, they briefly reunited with Noone before he left agian and Green took over as singer until he retired in 1980. Leckenby died on non-Hodgkin lymphoma in 1994, which left Whitwam as the only original member. Due to all the legal wranglings, his band are entitled to be called Herman’s Hermits, apart from when they play in North America, when they have to call themselves Herman’s Hermits starring Barry Whitman. Noone performs solo gigs as Herman’s Hermits starring Peter Noone. Like I said, messy.

Written by: Gerry Goffin & Carole King

Producer: Mickie Most

Weeks at number 1: 2 (24 September-7 October)

Actor Clive Owen – 3 October 
Footballer Paul Stewart – 7 October

172. The Animals – The House of the Rising Sun (1964)

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It may have only spent a week at number 1, but the Animals’ The House of the Rising Sun‘s impact was huge. It ushered in a new genre, folk rock, inspired Bob Dylan to go electric, and proved a hit single could be twice as long as was expected.

The origins of this traditional folk tale, whose author is unknown, date back hundreds of years. It shares a similar theme to the 16th-century ballad The Unfortunate Rake. Originally, the song was written from the perspective of a prostitute who worked at a brothel called the Rising Sun, with the oldest published lyrics (from 1925) beginning:

‘There is a house in New Orleans, it’s called the Rising Sun
It’s been the ruin of many a poor girl
Great God, and I for one’

The earliest recording, known as Rising Sun Blues, was performed by Clarence “Tom” Ashley and Gwen Foster in 1928. Later versions came from Woody Guthrie in 1941, Lead Belly in 1944 and 1948 (entitled In New Orleans and The House of the Rising Sun respectively), Joan Baez in 1960 and Nina Simone in 1962.

The version by the Animals most closely resembles Bob Dylan’s cover for his eponymous debut album in 1962. This is the first and certainly not the last time we’ll encounter Robert Zimmerman, who has never scored his own number 1 but whose songs have topped the charts several times over the years. However, Dylan had swiped his arrangement too, from fellow folk revivalist Dave Van Ronk. An unusually sheepish Dylan asked Ronk if he was okay with him recording it, and Van Ronk asked him to hold off as he was about to go into the studio to record it himself. Dylan then admitted he had already recorded it.

The Animals formed when singer Eric Burdon joined the Alan Price Rhythm and Blues Combo, who had been a unit since 1958. Making up the rest of the band were Alan Price on organ and keyboards, Hilton Valentine on guitar, Bryan ‘Chas’ Chandler on bass and John Steel on drums. It’s usually believed that their new name came from their wild stage act, but in 2013 Burdon claimed they used their name by way of tribute to a mutual friend known as ‘Animal’ Hogg. They moved to London in 1964 in the wake of Beatlemania to get signed, and subsequently did, to EMI Columbia. They specialised in heavy versions of R’n’B numbers, and their first single, Baby Let Me Take You Home narrowly missed out on the top 20. According to Burdon, the Animals first heard The House of the Rising Sun in a Newcastle club, sung by Northumbrian folk singer Johnny Handle. They were touring with Chuck Berry, and were searching for a number to close their sets with that would make them stand out from other groups. It’s doubtful they realised they had stumbled upon their sole chart-topper.

Producer Mickie Most certainly didn’t realise. Most made a name for himself as a producer of  many hit singles over the 1960s and 70s, and clearly had an ear for a good tune. And really, who could blame him for thinking The House of the Rising Sun was too long and not commercial enough?

It took only 15 minutes and one take in a tiny studio to record one of the decade’s most memorable number 1s. Valentine’s spine-tingling arpeggio intro, in which he plays Dylan’s chord sequence but on an electric guitar, is one of the greatest openings to a song of all time. Then Burdon’s deep growl begins, and the rest is history. Some have argued that the lyric change to make it about a man with a gambling addiction make the theme of the song less interesting, and they have a point, but really, all should be forgiven during this tour de force.

No number 1 had ever stayed stuck in one groove before, and certainly not for over four minutes (previously the record for the longest duration for a number 1 belonged to Harry Belafonte’s Mary’s Boy Child in 1957; the Animals would hold the record until the Beatles’ Hey Jude in 1968). The feeling is hypnotic and relentless, particularly during the second half when the band take it up a notch and Price goes to town on his Vox Continental. I can imagine the impact of hearing this back then must have been similar to the birth of skiffle, where Lonnie Donegan had plundered old tunes and added an intensity that had rarely been heard up to that point. By the time they had finished, Most was a believer. Despite the fact the whole band contributed to the arrangement, there was only room for one name on the record label, and as Alan Price’s forename was first alphabetically, he got the credit. This would later cause resentment, as Valentine understandably thought he should receive royalties for his part.

Two months after hitting pole position in the UK charts, The House of the Rising Sun spent three weeks at number 1 in the US, becoming the first bestseller during the British Invasion to be unconnected to the Beatles. Upon hearing it on his car radio, Bob Dylan immediately stopped driving, got out and banged on the bonnet. He was blown away, and a seed had been planted.

The Animals went on to have more great hits, including We Gotta Get Out of This Place and Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood. In May 1965 Alan Price left to go solo, citing personal and musical differences and a reluctance to fly while on tour. He formed the Alan Price Set, whose highlights include Simon Smith and His Amazing Dancing Bear. Dave Rowberry became his replacement, but by the end of the year the group were already falling apart. The history books are full of bands who got a raw deal due to mismanagement, but the Animals had suffered more than most. In 1966 Burdon formed a new backing group and they became known as Eric Burdon & the Animals, adopting a harder psychedelic sound and relocating to California. He also later formed the funk band War in the following decade. Meanwhile, Chas Chandler became Jimi Hendrix’s manager and producer and was an integral part of his success, before doing the same with Slade in the 70s. The original line-up of the Animals reformed in 1968, 1975 and 1983, and several different versions of the band using that name have existed over the years.

The Animals stood out in 1964 for refusing to play the game and adopt the Merseybeat approach. They didn’t turn on the charm, and they didn’t smile for the cameras. Another group were rising up the charts, and their fame would soon eclipse that of the Animals. The Rolling Stones were about to have their first number 1.

Written by: Traditional (arranged by Alan Price)

Producer: Mickie Most

Weeks at number 1: 1 (9-15 July)

Births:

Pocket cartoonist Matt Pritchett – 14 July