273. Thunderclap Newman – Something in the Air (1969)

While I only usually mention UK events within this blog, 50 years ago to the day I am typing this, man first set foot on the moon. The reason I mention news from another planet? Because it seems very appropriate that the number 1 at the time was Something in the Air, by one-hit wonders Thunderclap Newman.

There was indeed something in the air in July 1969, but it wasn’t just Apollo 11. The peace and love espoused by hippies in the mid-60s had mutated into frustration over Vietnam and the old world order. 1968 had seen protests taking place in the UK, the US, and France, among other countries. Groups such as Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin’s Yippies in the US would talk of revolution, and in the UK, left-wingers wanted reforms on drugs, abortion, gender roles… they wanted change. John Lennon, before going solo and becoming a full-blown ‘working class hero’, had written of his indecision over these matters in the 1968 B-side to Hey Jude, Revolution.

At around the same time, a man named John ‘Speedy’ Keen had been turning his thoughts into a call-to-arms, also called Revolution. Keen shared a flat with The Who guitarist and songwriter Pete Townshend, and he worked as their chauffeur. He had been in a few bands before then, was adept at several instruments, and dabbled in songwriting, most famously at that point by writing one of my favourite songs by The Who, the psychedelic rocker Armenia City in the Sky, which became the opening track of their classic LP, The Who Sell Out (1967). This was the only song written for The Who by a non-member, so the band, particularly Townshend, clearly thought he had potential. He also had a pretty big nose, like him, so they were kindred spirits.

Townshend had been branching out from The Who at the time (he had already helped The Crazy World of Arthur Brown with their debut LP and number 1 single, Fire), and was looking for a way to showcase Keen’s songs. He contacted a teenage guitarist called Jimmy McCulloch, whose band One in a Million supported The Who in 1967 (he was only 14 at the time), and an eccentric keyboard player called Andy ‘Thunderclap’ Newman, who had earned his nickname due to his idiosyncratic playing style. Newman was still working for the General Post Office as a telephone engineer when the trio met at Townshend’s home studio for the first time around Christmas 1968.

They became Thunderclap Newman, with Keen on vocals and drums, McCulloch on guitar, Newman on piano and Townshend producing and performing bass under the pseudonym Bijou Drains. Among the material they worked on was Keen’s song of revolution, now renamed to avoid confusion.

You could argue that the power of Something in the Air has been reduced over the years due to its overuse in TV and films. Yet despite its lazy use as the soundtrack to vintage footage of hippies and protests, and particularly its appearances in several advertising campaigns, I have never once tired of it. Even when it was on practically every advert break when used by TalkTalk, sponsors of Big Brother on Channel 4 one summer, I still loved it.

Keen’s lyrics, and vocal performance signal a very British type of revolution. He isn’t blessed with the best voice, but its the perfect fit for his reticent lyrics. Close inspection reveals its actually quite critical of the hippy movement. ‘The revolution’s here’, but they’re not ready yet (‘We’ve got to get together, sooner or later’)… is everyone too stoned to sort their shit out? Sounds likely, especially when he sings ‘We have got to get it together’ in the refrain.

Then after another attempt to rouse the troops, things get weird. In a very Beatlesque move, the mood changes completely, and we’re treated to a long heavy-handed piano solo from Newman. Only fair, when the band is named after him, really. Although this section breaks the mood, I consider it a good thing. Nothing wrong with a taste of the unexpected in pop music. And only a fool could not be moved by the way the song moves up a gear as it reaches the rousing finale, returning to Keen singing ‘Hand out the arms and ammo, we’re going to blast our way through here’ and the appearance of stirring strings.

Becoming the last act to knock The Beatles from number 1, and topping the charts while Neil Armstrong made one giant leap for humankind… what a time to be alive. The Who never had a number 1 single, so it must have been a proud moment for Townshend.

The popularity of their debut single took Thunderclap Newman by surprise. Having had no plans to tour, they now needed to augment their line-up for live shows supporting rock band Deep Purple, and they couldn’t rely on Bijou Drains to play the bass. Jim Pitman-Avery replaced him, and McCulloch’s older brother Jack became their drummer so Keen could concentrate on singing and rhythm guitar.

Following the tour they recorded their sole album, the critically acclaimed but long-forgotten Hollywood Dream, which closed with a slightly different version of Something in the Air. Released in October 1970, they had left it too late to capitalise on their success, and none of its singles charted.

In January 1971 the band found a new line-up with Australian musicians Ronnie Peel on bass and Roger Felice on drums – but not for long. The core trio simply didn’t gel personally, and Thunderclap Newman split up on April 10.

Keen tried his hand at solo stardom and released a couple of albums in the 70s. By 1976 he realised it wasn’t going to happen and he moved into production, working with Johnny Thunders and The Heartbreakers. He then produced Motörhead’s eponymous debut album in 1977, and even performed with them, before leaving music altogether. In 2002 he was attempting to record a third solo album when he unexpectedly died of a heart attack, aged 56.

McCulloch was even younger when he died. He played with John Mayall and The Bluesbreakers following the split, then helped Harry Nilsson, among others, as a session musician. After a stint with Stone the Crows and contributing to Keen’s first solo album, Previous Convictions in 1973, he joined Wings in 1974, making his debut on the single Junior’s Farm.

McCulloch left Paul McCartney’s band in September 1977, before their mammoth-selling Christmas number 1, Mull of Kintyre, to join the reformed Small Faces, but they soon split and he and their drummer Kenney Jones formed a new, short-lived band, Wild Horses, then in 1979 he joined The Dukes. That September, his body was discovered in his flat by his brother. He had died of heart failure due to morphine and alcohol poisoning, aged only 26.

Which leaves only Newman. In 1971 he recorded a solo album, Rainbow, and worked with ex-Bonzo Dog Band member Roger Ruskin Spear. Then he left music and worked as an electrician, until he decided to begin a new version of Thunderclap Newman in 2010. Featuring Townshend’s nephew Josh and Big Country’s drummer Mark Brzezicki, they recorded a new album, Beyond Hollywood, and played at the Isle of Wight Festival in 2012. Newman died in 2016, aged 73.

There’s a pretty good version of Something in the Air out there, by Elbow, recorded in 2002 for War Child, but it’s not a patch on the original. This one-hit wonder is a rock classic and one of my favourite songs of 1969.

Written by: Speedy Keen

Producer: Pete Townshend

Weeks at number 1: 3 (2-22 July)

Deaths:

The Rolling Stones guitarist Brian Jones – 3 July

Meanwhile…

3 July: Fans of The Rolling Stones, and the band themselves, were shocked to hear on 3 July that recently departed band member Brian Jones had died (more on that next time).

10 July: The trimaran Teignmouth Electron sailing vessel was found empty and drifting in the mid-Atlantic. It belonged to Donald Crowhurst, British businessman and amateur sailor. He had been taking part in the Sunday Times Golden Globe round-the-world race, in an attempt to save his failing business. Nothing had been heard from him since 1 July, and up to that point, he had been falsifying his position in the race. Once his vessel had been investigated, it began to look as though Crowhurst had suffered a breakdown due to his guilt, and quite likely had committed suicide by jumping into the sea.

12 July: Tony Jacklin, the most successful British golfer of his generation, won the Open Championship.

185. The Moody Blues – Go Now! (1965)

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During a period of national mourning (see below),  it was rather appropriate that the number 1 single at the time was about being unable to cope with the departure of a loved one.

Go Now! was very different to the type of songs that The Moody Blues would later be famous for, but then this was a different line-up.

The group first formed in Birmingham in 1964. Multi-instrumentalist Ray Thomas, bass player John Lodge and keyboardist Mike Pinder had been members of El Riot & the Rebels. Thomas and Pinder then joined The Krew Cats, but they disbanded after a spell in Hamburg. They recruited Denny Laine as their guitarist and singer, Graeme Edge as their drummer and Clint Warick as bassist after Lord declined due to still being at college.

The fledgling group hoped for a sponsorship deal from the M&B Brewery and named themselves the M Bs and the M B Five, but it never came off, so they became The Moody Blues as a subtle reference to Duke Ellington’s Mood Indigo. That spring they signed with Decca. Getting a beat group a record deal had become much easier once Beatlemania began, but their debut single Steal Your Heart Away failed to chart.

They then decided to record Go Now!. This soul ballad had been written by Larry Banks and Milton Bennett for Banks’ wife, Bessie, who had recorded a demo in 1962. Hit-making producers and Elvis Presley collaborators Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller produced a new version with her the following year. Upon hearing Bessie Banks’ version, Laine was entranced and insisted the Moody Blues make it their next single. It was produced by Denny Cordell, who later produced number 1s for Procul Harum and Joe Cocker.

The opening of Go Now! is one of my favourite introductions to any song. So much so, I can find myself singing it without warning. It seems to have taken up a special place within my brain over the years. Laine’s vocal throughout is perfect, and although The Moody Blues version is a straightforward copy of the original, his voice has an edge to it that tops Banks’ performance. Critics of the song point out that after the beginning the lyrics don’t really go anywhere, but I think that’s kind of the point. The singer is so broken up, they can’t get it together enough to formulate their thoughts. I’ll always have a soft spot for Go Now!.

Unusually, the band filmed a promotional video, produced and directed by co-manager Alex Wharton. The Beatles were one of the only other bands attempting such an idea at the time. Watching Go Now!, you have to wonder if this is where Queen got the idea for Bohemian Rhapsody (see above).

And that was just about it for The Moody Blues. Except of course, it wasn’t. Wharton left the stable shortly after their debut album The Magnificient Moodies was released, and they couldn’t capitalise on their early success. In June 1966 Warwick quit to be replaced by Rod Clark. Things got worse when Laine left that October during recording for their second album, with Clark choosing to leave the sinking ship a few days later.

Down, but not out, the remaining three recruited Justin Hayward to replace Laine, and Lodge returned to the fold now his college days were done. Come 1967, the music world was changing once more, and psychedelia was growing in popularity. Wisely, the Moody Blues chose to abandon the R’n’B sound and move towards a more experimental sound.

Their contract with Decca was about to expire but they owed the label a lot of money and their second album never surfaced. Luckily The Moody Blues found a sympathetic figure in Hugh Mendl, who had just established Deram as a more leftfield offshoot of Decca. He threw the band a lifeline: make a rock version of Antonín Dvořák’s New World Symphony to promote the label’s Deramic Stereo Sound audio format, and their debt would be written off. The band agreed, but the project fell through, so they set to work on the album that would become Days of Future Passed. Blending classical music with psychedelia, The Moody Blues became purveyors of symphonic rock, and eventually progressive rock giants.

Having listened to the album for the first time recently, I have to admit to being disappointed. It takes itself a bit too seriously, but you’d be a fool to not love Nights in White Satin. I prefer their follow-up album, the more out-there In Search of the Lost Chord (1968), particularly the tracks Ride My See-Saw, Legend of a Mind and Om.

The Moody Blues split in 1974, but were back together only three years later, and have continued ever since despite further line-up changes. Hawyard, Lodge and Edge have remained, however. Despite the fact they have never been the most fashionable of groups, they were and are hugely successful, and earlier this year they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

And what became of Denny Laine? Oh, not much. He formed The Electric String Band with ex-members of the Move and the Pretty Things, in a set-up similar to that of the Electric Light Orchestra, who came later. He also tried his hand as a solo artist before forming Balls in February 1969 (great name) and also played in Ginger Baker’s Air Force.

In 1971, he became a multi-instrumentalist in Paul and Linda McCartney’s new group, Wings. Considering how similar his name is to Penny Lane, it was clearly meant to be. He contributed lead and rhythm guitars, lead and backing vocals, bass and woodwinds. So, no shrinking violet, despite working with an ex-Beatle. Wings were one of the biggest bands of the 70s, and he co-wrote, among others, Mull of Kintyre, one of the biggest-selling singles of all time and the 1977 Christmas number 1.

Laine decided to leave Wings after McCartney became reluctant to tour in the wake of John Lennon’s death. He did occasionaly continue to collaborate with McCartney, though, and he performs with The Denny Laine Band to this day.

Written by: Larry Banks & Milton Bennett

Producer: Denny Cordell

Weeks at number 1: 1 (28 January-3 February)

Births:

Wrestler Norman Smiley – 28 February

Deaths:

Cricketer Tich Freeman – 28 January 

Meanwhile…

30 January: On a typically pale, grey winter’s day, the nation bid a final farewell to Sir Winston Churchill, the man who had saved the country from tyranny at the hands of the Nazis. For three days and three nights, over 300,000 mourners had filed past his casket. A million people gathered along the procession route as the gun carriage rode past 10 Downing Street and Trafalgar Square, where 20 years previously the mood had been altogether different as the news of victory in World War Two was celebrated. The service took place in St Paul’s Cathedral, attended by the Royal family and world leaders, before he was buried privately at Bladon, near his family’s ancestral home in Oxfordshire.