295. Clive Dunn – Grandad (1971)

The first number 1 of 1971 had narrowly missed out on the 1970 Christmas number 1 spot, and although it’s not fit for much, it would have made a more fitting yuletide chart-topper than I Hear You Knocking. Grandad, by comedy actor Clive Dunn, was a canny grab at the purse-strings of pensioners and children, and in that sense was an early pioneer of the novelty Christmas song market. Factor in Dunn’s popularity as doddery old Lance Corporal Jones in BBC One sitcom Dad’s Army, and there’s little surprise it spent three weeks at number 1.

Clive Robert Benjamin Dunn was born in Brixton, South London on 9 January 1920, meaning he had only turned 51 on the day his one-hit wonder about life as an OAP hit pole position. Both his parents were actors, and his cousin was Gretchen Franklin – better known as Ethel in BBC One soap opera EastEnders. Dunn had small roles in films while at school in the 30s, appearing alongside comedy actor Will Hay in Boys Will Be Boys in 1935.

Dunn’s acting ambitions were swept to one side when he served in World War Two for real, joining the British Army in 1940. He served in the Middle East until 1941 when he and hundreds of others were forced to surrender. Dunn was held as a POW in Austria for four years, but stayed with the Army upon his release, until 1947, when he returned to acting.

Fast forward to the mid-50s, and Dunn had found his calling in comedy roles, making several appearances alongside Tony Hancock on ITV and his classic radio series Hancock’s Half-Hour. In the early 60s he took on a role that would define the rest of his career, playing a comical 83-year-old man in ITV sitcom Bootsie and Snudge. He was only 38 at the time.

This made Dunn a natural choice to star in Dad’s Army as the nervy butcher Jones in 1968. As one of the youngest members of cast he could take the brunt of any physical comedy. The role in Jimmy Perry and David Croft’s sitcom made Dunn one of the most popular comedy stars of the era.

In 1970 Dunn met top session bassist Herbie Flowers at a BBC party. Flowers was a founding member of Melting Pot hitmakers Blue Mink and played bass on David Bowie’s Space Oddity (number 1 on its re-release in 1975). Upon discovering his occupation, Dunn allegedly challenged Flowers to write him a hit song.

So Flowers went away and with Dunn’s Dad’s Army character clearly in mind, he wrote a novelty song written from the point of view of an old man looking back at his youth. However, he was stuck for a chorus, until his friend Kenny Pickett (singer with 60s rock band The Creation) called round. Ringing the doorbell, a standard ‘ding dong’ chimed, and Flowers had the simple but scarily effective hook he was looking for.

Over a leaden backing featuring ukelele, Flowers’ bass (I assume), and parping brass, Dunn recalls penny farthings, penny dreadfuls, ‘talking things’, and best of all, how ‘Motorcars were funny things, frightening’, when he was a lad. At the exact point you’re hoping his nurse will interject and give him his medication or clean him up, in comes a sickly kiddie choir, thankfully kept to a minimum, singing ‘Grandad, grandad you’re lovely
/That’s what we all think of you’. Let’s be grateful they didn’t overdo it, unlike the similar Christmas number 1 of 1980, There’s No One Quite Like Grandma. Incidentally, co-producer Ray Cameron, is comedian Michael McIntyre’s dad.

It’s rotten, cynical stuff, but at least Flowers made up for it. He’s played on hundreds of hits over the years, and among other things, was a member of CSS, T. Rex and Sky. He also performed on Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of The War of the Worlds, but most notably, he was the man behind the bass line on Lou Reed’s Walk on the Wild Side. So we can forgive him.

We can forgive Dunn too, such was his charm. He was a staunch socialist too, who would argue with Conservative voter Arthur Lowe over politics, so he’s alright by me (although he did have a brief flirtation with Oswald Moseley’s British Union of Fascists in his youth, which he regretted). He was also known for his friendliness towards autograph seekers.

Dad’s Army ended in 1977, and two years later Dunn found work playing – what else? – an old man in BBC children’s series Grandad. Despite the obvious similarities, it was unrelated to his number 1. When his role as Charlie Quick ended in 1984, Dunn retired and moved to Portugal.

It blew my young mind, growing up on repeats of Dad’s Army in the 80s, to know that Dunn was one of the youngest cast members and one of the few still alive. But even he got old for real eventually, and he died as a result of operation complications on 6 November 2012, aged 92.

Written by: Herbie Flowers & Kenny Pickett

Producers: Peter Dulay & Ray Cameron

Weeks at number 1: 3 (9-29 January)

Births:

Artist Jay Burridge – 12 January
Actress Lara Cazalet – 15 January
Take That singer-songwriter Gary Barlow – 20 January
Scottish snooker player Alan McManus – 21 January
Sports broadcaster Clare Balding – 29 January

Deaths:

Northern Irish dramatist St John Greer Ervine – 24 January
Psychoanalyst – Donald Winnicott – 28 January

Meanwhile…

12 January: The Hertfordshire home of Robert Carr, Secretary of State for Employment, was bombed, but nobody was injured.

14 January: Extremist group The Angry Brigade claimed responsibility for the bombing of Robert Carr’s house, in addition to planting a bomb at the Department of Employment offices at Westminster.

20 January: UPW General Secretary Tom Jackson led the first ever postal workers’ strike took place. Workers were insisting on a 19.5% pay rise.

21 January: After collapsing in March 1969, a newly reconstructed Emley Moor transmitter in West Yorkshire starts again. It became Britain’s tallest freestanding structure, a concrete tower standing at 1084ft.

23 January: The first Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, in Singapore, gave Britain permission to sell weapons to South Africa.

285. Norman Greenbaum – Spirit in the Sky (1970)

The devil doesn’t always have the best tunes. Dana’s old-fashioned All Kinds of Everything was booted from the top by one of the most memorable one-hit wonders of all time. Norman Greenbaum’s Spirit in the Sky heralded a new decade with its fuzz-guitar sound and could be considered a forerunner to the glam rock that was to come. This one-hit wonder, combining a riff you’d sell your soul for with holier-than-thou lyrics, was so good, two different versions have been number 1 since. Not bad going for an unassuming, enigmatic Jewish dairy farmer.

Norman Joel Greenbaum was born in Malden, Massachusetts on 20 November 1942. He was raised in an Orthodox Jewish household, and as a teenager in the late 50s and early 60s he fell in love with southern blues and folk music. In high school he began performing in bands and went on to study music at Boston University, but dropped out and moved to Los Angeles in 1965.

In 1966 he formed the psychedelic jug band (think a less intense and more wacky The 13th Floor Elevators) Dr West’s Medicine Show and Junk Band and he penned their novelty single The Eggplant That Ate Chicago. They split in 1968. Clearly, Greenbaum was a unique talent.

Going it alone after signing with Reprise Records, Greenbaum set about writing a religious rock song, getting inspiration from country singer Porter Wagoner and enjoying westerns as a child. There was something in the air in the late 60s, with lots of songs moving away from references to drugs and turning to religion instead. Despite being Jewish, Greenbaum opted to sing about Jesus, because he knew it’d be more marketable then Jehovah. In an interview years later, he said it was ‘the spirit in the sky’ people should be taking notice of in his song, not ‘Jesus’. He took the phrase from a greetings card.

The music took a lot longer than the lyrics (which he claimed were done in 15 minutes), but it was worth the wait, with Greenbaum coming up with a laid-back yet fiery boogie groove in a San Francisco studio. The music provides a stark contrast to the holy lyrics and is so strong, it’s seen the song used in countless films and on TV. When Spirit in the Sky was mixed, he says it was optimised to sound good on car stereos without dynamic range, giving it an earthy, primitive quality.

Joining Greenbaum on the sessions were lead guitarist Russell DaShiell, bassist Doug Killmer from Crowfoot and drummer Norman Mayell, formerly of Sopwith Camel. The backing singers adding the gospel touch were The Stovall Sisters trio from Indiana. Before joining Earth, Wind & Fire, Philip Bailey was their percussionist.

The song became the title track of Greenbaum’s album, but Reprise were unsure this strange, lengthy track would make it as a 7”. Two other singles came out first, and they got nowhere, so they took a punt on Spirit in the Sky, released in the UK in December 1969.

And what a punt. I must have heard Greenbaum’s original a million times and yet I love it as much as ever. It’s a hell (pun intended) of a groove and I love the juxtaposition between the raw production and guitar effects and happy-clappy lyrics. It’s easy to get enveloped in it, and I could happily listen to a 10-minute version, and always feel it’s a shame it fades abruptly as the guitar stretches out. Future glam stars were certainly paying attention, for example Alvin Stardust’s My Coo Ca Choo is pretty similar.

Greenbaum may have never had another hit but some acts could take years to come up with one this good. He didn’t disappear straight away though – this was followed up by the bizarre Canned Ham, and he recorded two further albums – Back Home Again later this year, and the all-acoustic Petaluma in 1972.

Eventually Greenbaum’s music fizzled out, and he went to work in a friend’s café around the start of the 80s. Then in 1986 Doctor and the Medics released their cover, which took everyone by surprise when it reached number 1. The renewed interest sparked its use in films, and Greenbaum never needed to work again.

The one-hit wonder made headlines in 2015 when he was the passenger in a car accident that killed a motorcyclist and left him in a coma for three weeks. With perhaps a new-found appreciation of life, Greenbaum, now 77, returned to performing.

And yes, Spirit in the Sky went to number 1 yet again in 2003, with a version for Comic Relief by Gareth Gates with The Kumars, but we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it. I’m in no rush.

Written by: Norman Greenbaum

Producer: Erik Jacobsen

Weeks at number 1: 2 (2-15 May)

Births:

Cricketer Chris Adams – 6 May

Deaths:

Novelist Jack Jones – 7 May

275. Zager and Evans – In the Year 2525 (Exordium and Terminus) (1969)

Folk duo Zager and Evans’ one and only hit In the Year 2525 (Exordium and Terminus) was a kitschy sci-fi doom-laden track that proved to be a timely release in the aftermath of the Apollo 11 moon landing. But it’s certainly no Space Oddity.

Denny Zager and Rick Evans were both born in Nebraska, in 1944 and 1943 respectively. They met at Nebraska Welseyan University in 1962. While there they joined the band The Eccentrics, along with drummer Danny Schindler (who later joined The Benders… stop laughing).

In 1965 Schindler left for Vietnam, and Evans then also left the group. At some point in the previous year, he had written the original, unheard version of In the Year 2525 (Exordium and Terminus), which was likely more in keeping with the fashionable folk-rock scene of the period.

They went into the studio to record their hit after becoming a duo in 1968, by which point they had backing from Mark Dalton on bass and Dave Trupp on drums, who both also played with The Liberation Blues Band.

I don’t think I’ve ever got over the fact that In the Year 2525 (Exordium and Terminus) doesn’t live up to its name. It should be cosmic psychedelic rock, like Funkadelic, but it’s musically dull, repetitive and dated – it doesn’t even stand up to scrutiny when you try and excuse it by saying ‘well it was written in 1964 originally’. Folk music was already in much more adventurous territory back then.

Zager and Evans think they are smarter than us and want us to know that humans are doomed. Now, I happen to agree with them, especially with the current state of our politics, and reading recently that we have 18 months left to save the planet from climate change, but many artists have made this point way, way better than Zager and Evans. The lyrics are awful. Sixth-form standard, if that. Some of their predictions are prescient, such as the rise of automation, but their time scales are stupidly huge. Every verse jumps up from 2525 to 6565, with various nightmare scenarios. Some genuinely horrible, such as ‘Ain’t gonna need your teeth, won’t need your eyes’, but some which are pure pulp fiction, like taking a pill every day that controls your thoughts. Sounds like an episode of Star Trek, which never did much for me.

Then we suddenly jump to talk of judgement day in 7510, purely because they want a number that rhymes with the dire line ‘If God’s-a-coming, he ought to make it by then.’ Well, you’d hope so, wouldn’t you?! But no, we shoot all the way up to 9595, and Zager and Evans are ‘kinda wondering if mankind is still alive’. All over the same boring rhythm. And then, we’re back in the year 2525, and it starts all over again! God, please don’t wait, put us out of our misery now!

I’m all for a bit of melodrama, but the pompous vocals lay it on so thick, it goes from laughable to just really grating. I kept this song in my collection for years, as I found it comically bad for a while, then after listening to it for this blog, I realised I don’t ever want to hear it again, and deleted it. It all also sounds like I imagine a no-deal Brexit could wind up, and we’re getting dangerously close to that. Much more enjoyable is Flight of the Conchords’ spoof of this sort of thing, The Distant Future.

With the decade drawing to a close, and man landing on the moon, thoughts were turning to what the future held, and if we even had one. And purely for these reasons, Zager and Evans found themselves at number one in the US and the UK. They seized the moment and recorded an album, 2525 (Exordium and Terminus) with Trupp and Dalton plus other musicians.

And how did they follow up their number 1 single? With Mr Turnkey, a song in which they expected the listener to feel sympathy for a convicted rapist as he kills himself in prison. Poptastic! Needless to say, they this sank without trace. I’m almost curious to hear such a terrible idea for a single. Almost, but not quite.

Zager and Evans released an eponymous album in 1970, before splitting up after 1971’s Food for the Mind. The one-hit wonders disappeared, though Evans later recorded with Pam Herbert and formed his own label, Fun Records in the late 70s, on which he released new material and re-recorded Zager and Evans songs.

Evans died in April 2018, to no media attention whatsoever, which makes me feel rather sad. I may be highly critical of the song, but he had his time in the spotlight and it should have been noted, however short it may have been. In spring this year, his recordings made it on to eBay after relatives disposed of his estate.

Zager is still alive and builds custom guitars at Zager Guitars in Lincoln, Nebraska.

Written by: Rick Evans

Producers: Zager & Evans

Weeks at number 1: 3 (30 August-19 September)

Meanwhile…

29-31 August: By the time Honky Tonk Women was knocked off its lofty perch after five weeks, the second Isle of Wight Festival was in full swing. 150,000 people witnessed Bob Dylan’s comeback, and The Who put on a memorable show. Other acts included Free, The Bonzo Dog Band and The Moody Blues.

11 September: Housing charity Shelter released a report that claimed up to 3,000,000 people were in need of rehousing due to poor living conditions.

16 September: Iconic 60s fashion store Biba reopened on Kensington High Street.

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.