279. The Archies – Sugar Sugar (1969)

The penultimate number 1 of the 60s sat pretty in the top spot for close to two whole months, and only narrowly missed out on the Christmas number 1 spot. Before delving deeper into the slick pop of Sugar Sugar by the cartoon band, the Archies, what else was happening in the UK?

Three weeks into its run, regular colour TV broadcasts, began on both BBC One and ITV on 15 November. The very next day saw the BBC One debut of much-loved children’s stop-motion animated TV series Clangers.

The day after, in a move that had a far-reaching effect on the British press, The Sun newspaper, previously a left-wing broadsheet, was relaunched as a right-wing tabloid. Despite falling circulation, it remains influential and one of the most popular newspapers in the country.

On 25 November, John Lennon returned his MBE in protest against the British involvement in Biafra, as well as supporting the US in Vietnam. The Beatles as cuddly establishment moptops seemed a long time ago.

As a cold late November turned into a mild early December, Sugar Sugar held firm. On 10 December it was announced that organic chemist Derek Barton had jointly won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry with the Norwegian Odd Hassel. Barclays Bank purchased Martins Bank on 15 December, and three days later, the abolition of the death penalty was made permanent by Parliament. Whether our new government will bring it back, only time will tell.

Also that day, the sixth James Bond film, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, was released. This was the first and last to feature George Lazenby, after Sean Connery had quit the role.

Artists like the Beatles and Bob Dylan had made self-penned songs fashionable, and for most of the 60s, it was they and others of their ilk that often reached the top spot. But as the pop audience matured and moved on to buying albums, the gap was starting to be filled by bubblegum pop – squeaky-clean commercial songs, like Dizzy, made to order by hit-making teams, much like in the 50s, and given to singers such as Tommy Roe.

It would be a lie to say this type of thing had ever really gone away though. Motown aped the production-line of the car factories of its hometown Detroit, and the Monkees were a pop phenomenon whose songs were mostly written and recorded by other musicians, until they broke free. And it was Don Kirshner, the man that had been dumped by the Monkees, that came up with the idea of turning a comic into a band in 1968. From his point of view, it was a no-brainer. All had been going well until the Monkees got too big for their boots – why not start over, only this time, why not remove all pretence that the band is real? And why not use cartoon characters that already had a huge audience to give the project a head start? After all, it had worked in the 50s – Alvin and the Chipmunks had been and still are very successful.

Kirshner was hired by CBS in late 1967 to be musical supervisor on their new Saturday morning cartoon series The Archie Show. Based on popular characters from The Archie Comics, which began in 1941, it followed the adventures of a bunch of all-American teenage friends from Riverdale High School that had formed a band. 17-year-old Archie Andrews was the central figure, lead singer and rhythm guitarist. His best friend Jughead Jones was their drummer, with wisecracking Reggie Mantle on bass. But unusually, this wasn’t just a boy’s own setup, very unusual for that time. Rich girl Veronica Lodge also sang and played keyboards, and tomboy Betty Cooper was lead guitarist and percussionist. Girl power!

The show had a 17-episode run, premiering in the US in September 1968 until January 1969. Kirshner’s job was to hire the songwriters and musicians for the songs the Archies would be performing. He wasted no time in hiring Jeff Barry to co-produce with him. Barry, together with Ellie Greenwich, was responsible for some of the biggest pop hits of the decade, including Da Doo Ron Ron, Then He Kissed Me and Do Wah Diddy Diddy, a number 1 for Manfred Mann in 1964. He had co-written Tell Laura I Love Her with Ben Raleigh, which had been a UK number 1 for Ricky Valance in 1960, and worked with Kirshner on the Monkees’ hits, including producing their UK chart-topper I’m a Believer.

For their eponymous debut album, the Archies music was performed by singer Ron Dante, drummer Gary Chester, guitarist Dave Appell, bassist Joey Macho (great name) and keyboardist Ron Frangipane (even better name). Kirshner had wanted Kenny Karen to be the vocalist, but Barry liked Dante, who had been the singer novelty parody band the Detergents. He was also in the rock group the Cuff Links.

The first single released, Bang-Shang-A-Lang (sounds like a Bay City Rollers song title) did okay, reaching number 22 on the Billboard chart in the US, so the project continued.

For the sessions for second album, Everything’s Archie, Kirshner left Barry to produce alone. Among the material was a song by Barry and Canadian singer-songwriter Andy Kim. Sugar Sugar was catchy as hell, and encapsulated bubblegum pop totally. It was all wide-eyed innocence, as sweet as the title suggested and contained hook upon hook. Kim also plated guitar and joined Dante on the vocals, and Toni Wine performed the female voices. Wine was a songwriter too, and had co-written A Groovy Kind of Love with Carole Bayer Sager for the Mindbenders. Joining them and the line-up of the debut album was guitarist Sal DiTroia and Ray Stevens provided the all-important handclaps.

Sugar Sugar was so strong, they decided to release it before the LP was completed. Allegedly, because previous single Feelin’ So Good (S.K.O.O.B.Y-.D.O.O.) hadn’t performed well, Kirshner decided not to reveal the identity of the band behind Sugar Sugar when DJs got their hands on it in May 1969. Whether this is true or not, it was some time before it became really big. It eventually climbed to the top in the US that September, and the UK a month later.

I totally get the reasons for Sugar Sugar‘s enduring popularity, for all the reasons I’ve given above, and more – mostly the infectious keyboard interjections in the chorus, obviously. It has all the ingredients needed for a pop song. But it’s never done much for me. Even as a child, I found it a bit too sickly-sweet and cloying. I found the lyrics silly and the ‘band’ irritating, having never actually seen the cartoon, just the clips compiled to make a music video.

As an adult, it’s all a bit too cynical and professional for my liking. Don’t get me wrong, I no longer feel, as I did in my 20s, that music is only any good if the artist is ‘4 Real’, but try as I might, Sugar Sugar mostly leaves me cold. The ‘Pour your sugar on me, honey’ line is quite good though, and sung with some much-needed passion.

Sugar Sugar was the best-selling song of 1969 and stayed at number 1 for eight weeks – a feat that was last achieved by the Shadows with Wonderful Land in 1962. I can only assume the TV show was being shown in the UK at the time and doing well too, otherwise, why would it perform even better here than in the US? Whatever the reasons, it was a sign of things to come in the following decade, as bubblegum pop continued to sell hugely, and innocent acts like the Osmonds entrancing children. The idea of cartoon bands surfaces in the charts from time to time – Damon Albarn’s Gorillaz, for example.

Filmation continued to produce various Archies TV shows until 1978, but the musical project had ground to a halt before then. Nothing matched Sugar Sugar, and after follow-up Jingle Jangle (not featuring Jimmy Savile), the band’s success tailed off sharply. Fourth album Sunshine in 1970 (which has great sun-drenched, slightly sinister artwork that wouldn’t look out of place on a Boards of Canada release) was the last to feature Jeff Barry and Andy Kim properly, and was more grown-up than previous releases. 1971’s This Is Love was the final regular release.

Barry became interested in writing music for film and television afterwards, and Kim had a solo hit in 1974 with Rock Me Gently. After a short-lived solo career, Dante moved into production and did very well at it, producing hits for Barry Manilow. In 2008 he returned to the Riverdale teens, singing on The Archies Christmas Album. Kirshner continued to work in music for TV shows. He died of heart failure in 2011, aged 76.

Archie Comics continued to be mined, with Sabrina, the Teenage Witch proving to be the other most popular character. Archie Andrews was killed off in 2014, shot in the stomach while saving the life of his friend, Senator Kevin Keller. Riverdale was renamed Archie Andrews High School in his honour. 2017 saw the debut of TV drama series Riverdale, which turned the premise of the characters on its head, with the lives of Archie and co proving much darker than the original comic-strip could ever have been.

And while we’re on the subject of ‘dark’, if Sugar Sugar had lasted at number 1 a further week, it would have been Christmas number 1 and the final chart-topper of the decade. However, it was pipped by another hugely popular children’s song, now sadly infamous thanks to the singer.

Can you tell what it is yet?

Written by: Andy Kim & Jeff Barry

Producer: Jeff Barry

Weeks at number 1: 8 (25 October-19 December) *BEST-SELLING SINGLE OF THE YEAR*

Births:

Scottish actor Gerard Butler – 13 November
Rock drummer Michael Lee – 19 November
Politician Sajid Javid – 5 December
TV presenter Richard Hammond – 19 December

Deaths:

Bandleader Ted Heath – 18 November
Princess Alice of Battenburg – 5 December

277. Jane Birkin and Serge Gainsbourg – Je t’aime… moi non plus (1969)

The all-new, spectacular seven-sided 50p coin was introduced on 14 October. The replacement for the ten-shilling note was given a rather mixed reaction from the Great British public, with many complaining that it was too similar to the 10p coin. It wasn’t, but there was enough shock of the new to contend with that week I guess, as we’ll find out shortly.

Opinion polls were suggesting that, come the next general election, the Conservatives, led by Edward Heath and ahead by up to 24 points, would easily trounce Howard Wilson’s Labour.

And ruling the charts was the muckiest, filthiest number 1 by far at that point. Je t’aime… moi non plus by French Lothario Serge Gainsbourg and his lover, English actress Jane Birkin shocked our stuffy nation and was banned by the BBC… but as is often the case with such singles, whatever the decade, its notoriety only helped its sales. It was also the first foreign language chart-topper.

One of the most important figures in 20th-century French culture, Serge Gainsbourg had been born Lucien Ginsburg in Paris on 2 April, 1928. He was the son of Jewish Russian migrants who had fled to the city after the Russian Revolution in 1917. His father Joseph taught Lucien and his twin sister Liliane to play the piano.

The young Ginsberg was deeply affected by Germany’s occupation of France during World War 2, and it would come out in his work in later years. Travelling under false papers, the Ginsburgs escaped to Limoges, which although safer, was still a dangerous place for French Jews.

Nonetheless they survived, and when the war is over, he found work teaching music and drawing in a school set up by rabbis for the orphaned children of murdered deportees. The stories he heard stayed with the horrified teacher for the rest of his life.

By the time he was in his early twenties, he changed his name to Serge Gainsbourg. He liked his new forename because it reminded him of his Russian heritage (and Lucien made him sound like a hairdresser’s assistant), and Gainsbourg in homage to the English painter Thomas Gainsborough.

Fast forward to the late 50s, and Gainsbourg, now married, was a shy, struggling songwriter, who felt the songs he was starting to develop would be too provocative for chansons. Singer Michèle Arnaud took him under her wing and offered to record his songs, and buoyed by her patronage, he released his debut album Du chant à la une!… in 1958.

Gainsbourg was too obsessed with sex and death to be famous just yet. But he became friends with legendary Belgian songwriter Jacques Brel and French singer Juliette Greco, with who he collaborated over the next few years.

In 1965 Gainsbourg, now on to his second marriage, finally found some mainstream success by writing Luxembourg’ entry into the Eurovision Song Contest. Poupée de cire, poupée de son, sung by French teen France Gall, won the competition. However, his next song for her, Les Sucettes, caused uproar. Turns out it wasn’t about lollipops, which is what the title translates into, but oral sex. Gainsbourg, who had once been ridiculed by audiences and critics for his looks, likely enjoyed pissing people off, and despite Gall’s career suffering for a while afterwards, Gainsbourg was onto something.

In 1967 Gainsbourg, divorced for the second time, began an affair with actress, singer and iconic sex symbol Brigitte Bardot. She asked him to write the most beautiful love song he could imagine, and he went home that night and wrote two of his most famous tracks. Bonnie and Clyde, which was released as a duet in 1968, and Je t’aime… moi non plus.

The title for the latter translates as ‘I love you… me neither’, which was inspired by a Salvador Dali quote: ‘Picasso is Spanish, me too. Picasso is a genius, me too. Picasso is a communist, me neither’. Gainsbourg would over the years describe it as ‘the ultimate love song’, or an ‘anti-fuck song’.

The secret lovers recorded the first version, and indulged in heavy petting when doing so, according to engineer William Flageollet. When word got out, Bardot’s husband was furious and Bardot pleaded with Gainsbourg not to release the recording. I looked forward to hearing this version, eventually released in the 80s, purely for research purposes and not for finding Bardot gorgeous you understand… it’s actually a disappointment. The arrangement is different, with more strings, and less organ, but the main problem is, Bardot’s performance is more reserved than Jane Birkin’s.

Birkin was born on 14 December 1946 in Marylebone, London. Her mother Judy Campbell was a stage actress and her father David Birkin a World War 2 spy. Her brother Andrew is a successful screenwriter and director. Birkin was raised in Chelsea, and aged 17 she met her future husband John Barry, the James Bond composer and former collaborator with Adam Faith on his number 1s What Do You Want? (1959) and Poor Me (1960). They married in 1965, and she became famous herself through her roles in counterculture films Blowup and Kaleidoscope, both in 1966, and Wonderwall in 1968. That year, she and Barry divorced.

Birkin auditioned for a role in Slogan in France in 1968. She became the female lead and co-starred with Gainsbourg, and together they performed the film’s theme song, La Chanson de Slogan. They fell in love, and what better way to commemorate than by recording a sexually explicit song? Was this also a slap in the face to Bardot? Possibly, but Birkin was definitely keen. She had heard the original and found it ‘hot’ and insisted they bring it out as a single, because she was jealous of his ex-lover.

With the organ taking centre stage and more prominent bass under a new arrangement by Arthur Greenslade, Gainsbourg and Birkin went in to record their vocals in a studio in Marble Arch. He told her to sing it an octave higher than Bardot, so she would sound ‘like a little boy’.

A typically shocking thing for Gainsbourg to say, but the shift in pitch between their two vocals does add to the contrast and highly charged erotic content. It’s difficult to imagine now just how shocking Je t’aime… moi non plus must have sounded 50 years ago, and its been used, covered and spoofed so many times, but if you overlook the slightly cheesy organ (so to speak), the explicit performance from Birkin is still pretty out there.

Put it this way, I couldn’t and didn’t play it out loud in front of the kids like I easily could any other number 1 before it. It brought to mind L’il Louis & the World’s 1989 house classic French Kiss. Featuring similarly orgasmic moans, it once came on at random in my kitchen and my eldest, then around five, asked why the lady was groaning. At a loss for an answer, I said she had a headache.

There are rumours out there that Birkin and Gainsbourg were actually having sex while recording this. I don’t believe that personally, but it makes for a good story. Birkin certainly puts in an effective performance though, totally letting go and making Gainsbourg’s cool detached replies in the chorus all the more effective too.

There’s a great translation and essay on the meaning of the lyrics of Je t’aime… moi non plus here, which proves it’s more than just two horny people getting it on. Some people consider Birkin is wildly in love with Gainsbourg in the song, and his ‘me neither’ means it’s purely about sex for him. But the site considers the possibility that Birkin doesn’t love Gainsbourg, that she’s just into the sex, and he knows this full well, hence his reply.

It also suggests that, and the rest of the vocals back this up, that if it is just about sex, than Gainsbourg is making sure she has the best time he can give her. Several times he says ‘Je vail et je viens/Entre ten reins/Et je me retiens’, which translates as ‘I come and I go/Inside of you/And I hold myself back’. The song’s ending is a literal climax, with Birkin demanding ‘Non! Maintenant! Viens!’ (No! Come now!)… Stirring stuff, really, and more sophisticated than most record buyers would have realised, especially in 1969. And I’d bet that the average British man at the time would have been astounded at the idea of such selfless sex.

It’s another quantum leap in pop music. We’ve gone from songs about love to seven inches of the hard stuff just like that, and although it proved too shocking to open the floodgates to many similar songs at the time, pop was never the same again. Je t’aime… moi non plus may have been filth, but it’s deep too.

Je t’aime… moi non plus sent shockwaves through the charts. In addition to being banned on many radio stations, Fontana, the label that released it, withdrew it from sale when it reached number two. Fortunately, Gainsbourg arranged a deal with Major Minor Records, and the combination of two different versions only helped its sales. An unusual occurrence in the charts, and I’m not sure if it’s happened before or since.

It wasn’t just deemed offensive in the UK though. It was banned from the radio in Spain, Sweden, Brazil and Italy. It was denounced by the Vatican. In France, it couldn’t be played before 11pm. And yet there have been countless covers and spoof versions over the years, by Giorgio Moroder & Donna Summer, Malcolm McLaren and Pet Shop Boys. The two versions I want to hear the most have to be by Frankie Howerd & June Whitfield and René & Yvette from ‘Allo! ‘Allo!. Just imagine…

Two years after the success of their sole number 1 single (and the album of the same name), Gainsbourg released the concept album Histoire de Melody Nelson, about a middle-aged man accidentally crashing his car into a teenage cyclist, and subsequently falling in love with her. Despite, or maybe because of its Lolita-esque story, it’s considered a landmark in French pop. Birkin provided the vocals for Melody and also featured on the provocative artwork.

Gainsbourg shocked once more in 1975 when his experiences of World War 2 inspired the album Rock Around the Bunker, featuring satirically light-hearted songs such as Nazi Rock. His last ‘rock’ album came out the following year, L’Homme à tête de chou (Cabbage-Head Man, which was his nickname).

Gainsbourg moved into reggae, and recorded Aux Armes et cætera, a version of La Marsellaise, with Rita Marley and Sly and Robbie. Many were appalled, and he received death threats. Bob Marley was also disgusted with him for persuading his wife to sing dirty lyrics on his 1981 album, Mauvaises nouvelles des étoiles.

Birkin gave birth to their daughter Charlotte, now a successful actress and singer herself. Following a break in acting, She returned in 1973 to play Brigitte Bardot’s lover in Don Juan, or If Don Juan Were a Woman. Gainsbourg must have loved that. In 1976 she starred in his film, Je t’aime moi non plus, which was banned in the UK. But after 13 years their turbulent, intense relationship finally ended in 1980.

It could be argued that he never really recovered, despite almost immediately beginning a relationship with Caroline Paulus, aka Bambou, which lasted until his death. He recorded two funk and hip-hop-influenced albums, 1984’s Love on the Beat and You’re Under Arrest in 1987, in which much of his wit and playfulness seemed to have been reduced to seeing how far he could go to shock people, even recording the track Lemon Incest with Charlotte, only 13 at the time.

Gainsbourg was becoming increasingly dishevelled, and became best known for his drunken, shambolic chat show appearances. Famously, in 1986 he interrupted a nervous Michel Drucker to announce on his chat show that he wanted ‘to fuck’ an understandably startled Whitney Houston, sat next to him on the sofa. On another show he shouted ‘You’re nothing but a filthy whore, a filthy fucking whore’ at Catherine Ringer, an actress who had also appeared in porn. Understandably, he didn’t appear on TV much after this.

In 1988 while judging a film festival he began to tell the audience an obscene story about Brigitte Bardot and a champagne bottle, which ended in him staggering offstage and collapsing in a seat.

On 2 March 1991 Serge Gainsbourg died of a heart attack, aged 62. Since then most of those final years have been forgotten and he is rightly considered a legendary figure in France for his intelligence and thought-provoking music and film work.

Jane Birkin continued to make music throughout the 70s and 80s, including the albums Ex fan des Sixties in 1978 and Baby Alone in Babylone in 1983. Her film work included in the adaptations of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express (1978) and Evil Under the Sun (1982), and she co-starred with John Gielgud in Leave All Fair (1985).

Despite finding love again with director Jacques Dollon, with whom she had her third child, Lou in 1982, The Observer reported in 2007 that they separated in the 90s because he ‘could not compete with her grief for Gainsbourg’. In 1998 she starred in Merchant-Ivory’s A Soldier’s Daughter Never Cries and saw out the 90s with the album À la légère in 1999.

The 00s saw her awarded an OBE in 2001, plenty more acting work, and three albums – Rendez-Vous (2004), Fictions (2006) and Enfants d’Hiver (2008). Her last album to date, 2017’s Birkin/Gainsbourg: Le Symphonique, featured orchestral reworking of their collaborations. A year previous, she starred in the Academy Award-nominated short film La femme et le TGV, which she announced would be her final acting work.

A multi-talented, multi-award-winning humanitarian and strong role model, Jane Birkin is now 72 and though her career has have slowed down, she has a fine body of work to look back on, and it would be unfair if she was mainly remembered for her number 1 duet – as great as it is.

Written by: Serge Gainsbourg

Producer: Jack Baverstock

Weeks at number 1: 1 (11-17 October)

Births:

Actor Dominic West – 15 October

271. Tommy Roe – Dizzy (1969)

By 1969 the kids that were caught up in Beatlemania were outgrowing pop singles. Thanks to the Fab Four, and their contemporaries, albums had replaced singles as the music art form for young adults. Record labels recognised this and pumped money into LPs.

All this left something of a void, and you only have to look at some of the number 1s from the last two years to see that. One genre making waves in the singles chart was ‘bubblegum pop’, largely an invention by labels eager to fill a void. If the teenagers and beyond were mainly buying albums now, then that left a whole new generation to be persuaded into buying pop singles. Bubblegum pop songs tended to be short and upbeat. Gone were overt drug references. Producers were often in charge, churning out material by an assembly line of acts backed by session musicians. One of the most successful of 1969 was an American whose first hit was back in 1962.

Thomas Roe was born in May 1942 in Atlanta, Georgia. Upon graduating, he went to work for General Electric, where he soldered wires. By 1960 he had become Tommy Roe, and unusually, his first album was split between him and another singer, hence the name Whirling with Tommy Roe and Al Tornello. On the album were his first two singles, Caveman and Sheila, in which Roe mimicked the vocal stylings of Buddy Holly. Neither charted.

However, two years later, the latter was re-recorded, made the title track of his first full album, and became a resounding success. It topped the charts in the US, Canada and Australia, and reached number three in the UK. ABC-Paramount asked him to go on tour to promote it, but he was reluctant to give up his day job until they gave him an advance.

The Beatles were fans of Sheila, and began covering it. In early 1963, they supported Roe and Chris Montez on their joint headlining tour. The New Musical Express reported that both singers were being upstaged by John, Paul, George and Ringo. He had two further UK hits later that year – Everybody and The Folk Singer. Roe decided to move to London, but the Beat boom was happening so fast, he couldn’t keep up, and there were no further chart appearances on these shores, even though Sweet Pea and Hooray for Hazel did well elsewhere in 1966.

Then came Dizzy. Roe had co-written this pop tune about budding love with Freddy Weller, guitarist with US rock band Paul Revere & the Raiders. Weller had ambitions to be a solo artist, and around this time he released his debut single, a cover of Joe South’s Games People Play. Top US session musicians the Wrecking Crew provided the backing on Dizzy, including the late, great Hal Blaine on drums.

I adore Dizzy. But not this version. The first single I ever bought on cassette was the number 1 cover in 1991 by my favourite comedian at the time, Vic Reeves, with Brummie indie outfit the Wonder Stuff.

Roe’s Dizzy is a rare instance of an original being worse than a cover. I was so disappointed to hear a slight, awkward attempt at psychedelic pop, that is, by comparison, terribly leaden. Very odd for the Wrecking Crew to sound so dull. It has a slightly sickly feeling to it, making the title rather appropriate. Everything is slightly off, apart from Jimmie Haskell’s string arrangement, which was neatly copied in 1991.

Amazingly, six years after being upstaged, Roe got his revenge, and he knocked the Beatles from the top spot, and Dizzy went to pole position in the US and Canada too. Despite its weirdness, it was catchy enough to capture the public’s imagination after all. And yet, after one week, he was knocked off his perch by… the bloody Beatles.

Although Roe continued to have hits elsewhere, his chart action in the UK was soon over once more. Eventually he ended up on the nostalgia circuit with acts like Bobby Vee. In the late-1970s and 80s he moved into releasing country material.

Roe’s final album, Confectioner’s, was released in 2017. He announced his retirement on his Facebook page in 2018.

Written by: Tommy Roe & Freddy Weller

Producer: Steve Barri

Weeks at number 1: 1 (4-10 June)

266. Amen Corner – (If Paradise Is) Half as Nice (1969)

17 years after the New Musical Express began the first singles chart, an official version finally appeared, the week commencing 12 February 1969. The BBC and Record Retailer (the music industry publication whose chart tends to be recognised as ‘official’ from 1960 up to this point) commissioned the British Market Research Bureau to compile it, therefore ending arguments over which chart people should follow. The BMRB’s first chart was compiled from postal returns from sales logs of 250 shops, randomly chosen from a pool of approximately 6,000. The logs were then translated into punch cards which would be translated by a computer. The computer would compile the chart each Monday, and the BBC were informed of the top 50 each Tuesday, in time for it to be announced on Johnnie Walker’s Radio 1 afternoon show.

This means (I think) that the first 100% ‘official’ UK number 1 single was Amen Corner’s (If Paradise Is) Half as Nice. Which is the most interesting thing about this minor blog entry.

This Welsh seven-piece (okay, that’s pretty unusual, too) had formed in Cardiff in late 1966. They consisted of singer Andy Fairweather Low, guitarist Neil Jones, saxophonist Allan Jones, keyboardist Derek ‘Blue’ Weaver and tenor saxophonist Mike Smith, with bassist Clive Taylor and drummer Dennis Byron also performing backing vocals.

They took their name from The Amen Corner, a weekly US soul music night at Cardiff’s Victoria Ballroom each Sunday. Originally Amen Corner performed blues and jazz-influenced tunes, but after signing with Deram Records they were steered towards a more commercial sound. Nevertheless their debut single was a cover of blues track Gin House Blues, which went in at number 12.

It was their third single in 1968 that really caught the public eye. Their version of the Outsiders’ Bend Me, Shape Me became the most popular UK release, getting all the way to number three. That year they also released debut album Round Amen Corner. At the end of 1968 they jumped ship to Immediate Records, and recorded (If Paradise Is) Half As Nice.

Their fifth single was originally written by influential Italian singer-songwriter Lucio Battisti for La Ragazza 77, aka Ambra Borelli. Il paradiso della vita translated as ‘The paradise of the life’. Jack Fishman translated it into English and renamed it to the song we know today. It was originally offered to the Tremeloes, who rejected it, and the Dave Clark Five showed an interest, but Amen Corner took it to number 1.

(If Paradise Is) Half As Nice peaks far too soon. The ‘la la la’ intro is lovely, and jumping into a memorable chorus early on often guarantees success, but it’s downhill after that first blast of brass. At least, I think it is. I can’t really remember, and that’s my point, really. Fairweather Low’s vocal is reedy and rather weak, and gets irritating quickly. He starts so high he’s soon straining and doesn’t know where to go. Also, I take issue with the chorus lyrics. ‘If paradise is half as nice as heaven that you take me to/Who needs paradise, I’d rather have you’. Well, yes, of course you would, it’s a no-brainer isn’t it? Perhaps the kids thought it would make a nice Valentines Day present?

A live album, The National Welsh Coast Live Explosion Company followed, and a single by Roy Wood from the Move, Hello Susie, which reached number four, but Amen Corner wouldn’t make it far into 1970. They recorded one last album, Farewell to the Real Magnificent Seven featuring their final (only their sixth) single, a cover of the Beatles’ Get Back, which failed to chart in 1969.

Saxophonists Jones and Smith left, and the rest of the band became Fair Weather, scoring a hit in 1970 with Natural Sinner. However, Weaver left to replace Rick Wakeman in the Strawbs in 1971, so they soon split.

Fairweather Low had a solo career, and his single Wide Eyed and Legless reached the top ten in 1975. From there, he has featured as a guitarist on live tours for Eric Clapton and Roger Waters.

Weaver went from the Strawbs to Mott the Hoople, and then the Bee Gees, joining Byron who was at that point their drummer. Jones became a photographer, whose work featured in weeklies the New Musical Express and Melody Maker, before becoming Cardiff City Council’s official photographer. He died of cancer in June 2018, aged 70.

Written by: Lucio Battisti/Jack Fishman (English lyrics)

Producer: Shel Talmy

Weeks at number 1: 2 (12-25 February)

Births:

Long jumper Stewart Faulkner – 19 February
Manic Street Preachers singer and guitarist James Dean Bradfield – 21 February

Deaths:

Comedian Kenneth Horne – 14 February

265. The Move – Blackberry Way (1969)

Before writing a bona-fide Christmas classic for his group Wizzard in 1973, Brummie songwriter Roy Wood specialised in quirky psychedelic pop with the Move, and helped to found the Electric Light Orchestra along the way.

In 1965, members of several groups in the Birmingham music scene plotted to form a new band, that they hoped would emulate the success of the Who. Making the move (hence the new group’s name) that December were singer Carl Wayne, bassist Chris ‘Ace’ Kefford and drummer Bev Bevan from Carl Wayne and the Vikings. Guitarist and songwriter Wood transferred from the Nightriders, later to become the Idle Race. In January 1966, the same month as their live debut, they were joined by guitarist Trevor Burton from Danny King & the Mayfair Set.

In these early days, the Move played mainly covers by bands including the Byrds, plus Motown and rock’n’roll. Although Wayne was the lead singer, each member got a chance to sing at the gigs.

Soon, Moody Blues manager Tony Secunda signed them up and helped them get a weekly residency at London’s Marquee Club. Secunda was integral in helping the Move stand out. He encouraged them to perform dressed as gangsters, and would get Wayne to take an axe to television sets on stage. When they signed their contract with producer Denny Cordell, he arranged for them to sign it on the back of topless model Liz Wilson. It was also Secunda that encouraged Wood to begin coming up with original material.

All Secunda’s unique, somewhat sexist methods paid off when the Move’s debut single, Night of Fear, written by Wood but with a steal from Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, stormed to number two in January 1967. Wood soon found his form, and the next three singles are all classic LSD-fried upbeat pop, showcasing Wood’s very British humour and laden with catchy hooks. I Can Hear the Grass Grow, later covered by the Fall, reached number five in March.

Flowers in the Rain reached number two in August, and is now their most famous tune due to it being the first pop song ever played on Radio 1 a month later. It helps that it’s also bloody good, particularly because of its distinctive woodwind and string arrangement courtesy of Cordell’s assistant Tony Visconti. It did however create a headache for Wood. Secunda’s decision to issue a postcard featuring a cartoon of Prime Minister Harold Wilson in bed with his secretary Marcia Williams resulted in the Move losing a libel case and Wood relinquishing all royalties to charities of Wilson’s choice.

Fire Brigade, released in January 1968, was their best yet, and was the first single to feature Wood on lead vocal. What a bizarre, life-affirming, under-rated classic. A patchy debut LP, Move, was released at the same time. Soon after, Kefford was sacked due to drug issues. Their rut continued when next single Wild Tiger Woman failed to chart. Fortunately, Blackberry Way wasn’t far behind.

Released in November that year, and perhaps as a result of the mood in the band, Blackberry Way was darker than their usual fare. Inspired by Penny Lane, I consider this a sequel to Flowers in the Rain, where the ecstatic trip has turned sour. The queasy backing, thanks in part to producer Jimmy Miller, conjures up the confusion and fear of a bad trip. There’s no fun to be had in the rain this time. The singer is broken-hearted on Blackberry Way, wondering where he goes from here. However, the chorus is more upbeat and defiant, and the singer reckons she is sure to ‘want me back another day’. Whilst it’s not the best single by the Move, Blackberry Way is a great example of late-60s psychedelic pop, and it signified that the hippy dream of the past few years was turning sour.

Playing keyboards on Blackberry Way was Richard Tandy, who was later part of the Electric Light Orchestra. He briefly joined the Move when Burton injured himself, but Burton was growing increasingly disenchanted with the pop that Wood was writing, and once Blackberry Way became number one, he knew they would continue in that vein, so he left in February 1969 after an on-stage scrap with Bevan.

Among the replacements considered for Burton was Jeff Lynne, who was still hopeful for further success with the Idle Race, and even Hank Marvin of the Shadows. Eventually Rick Price took up the bass on a non-contractual basis.

October 1969 saw the Move’s only US tour dates, supporting the Stooges. Soon after they began being booked for cabaret-style venues, which signalled they were losing their way. Wood began working up the concept of the Electric Light Orchestra. He was become increasingly keen on bringing classical and exotic instruments into pop songs, and ELO would give him the chance to experiment away from the Move. A month before the release of their second album Shazam in February 1970, an increasingly frustrated Wayne quit the Move. He had wanted Kefford and Burton back in the fold while Wood worked on ELO, but he, Bevan and Price refused to go along with the plan. In 2000, Wayne replaced Allan Clarke as lead singer of the Hollies, until his death from cancer in 2004.

Wood approached Lynne once more, only this time he floated the idea for the Electric Light Orchestra too, and Lynne was in as second guitarist and pianist. They began work on what was supposed to be the final Move album, Looking On, released in December 1970, which featured hit single Brontosaurus and the stomping Feel Too Good as its closer. One of the songs intended as a B-side, the cello-laden epic 10538 Overture, became the first ELO single instead.

Wood, Lynne and Bevan signed a new deal with Harvest Records, who insisted on one final album by the Move as well as two ELO albums, so the trio found themselves in the unusual position of recording two separate LPs by two different bands simultaneously. The Move’s final album, Message from the Country, was released in June 1971, and The Electric Light Orchestra came six months later. Soon after the Move’s ‘farewell single’ California Man, was released. By the time we hear from Wood in this blog again, his time in ELO was over, and Lynne was in charge.

There was a one-off reunion of the Move in 1981 when Wood, Bevan and Kefford took part in a charity fundraiser. The name has been used by Bevan in several different line-ups to this day, something that Wood resents.

Written by: Roy Wood

Producer: Jimmy Miller

Weeks at number 1: 1 (5-11 February)

263. The Marmalade – Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da (1969)

After a topsy-turvy 1968, we reach the final year of the decade. And for the first time since the inception of the charts, there’s a new number 1 on New Year’s Day. Psych-pop and rock five-piece the Marmalade became the first Scottish band at the top of the charts with their version of Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da by the Beatles.

The band’s history began in 1961 in east Glasgow. Originally known as the Gaylords (stop sniggering, they took the name from the street gang Chicago Gaylords), the inaugural line-up featured guitarists Pat Fairley and Billy Johnston, lead guitarist Pat McGovern, drummer Tommy Frew and singer Wattie Rodgers.

Several line-up changes ensued, most importantly the arrival of William ‘Junior’ Campbell on guitar later that year. By 1963 they were known as Dean Ford and the Gaylords, with Thomas McAleese assuming the name of the ‘star’, aping Cliff Richard and the Shadows. They signed with Columbia Records in 1964, and their first single was a cover of Chubby Checker’s Twenty Miles. They were getting lots of attention in Scotland, and following a stint in Germany in 1965, they returned with ambitions to make it big in England.

After befriending the Tremeloes they signed with their manager Peter Walsh. Performing in the clubs of swinging London in 1966, they tightened up their act and Walsh suggested they became the Marmalade, and they signed with CBS and gained hitmaking Mike Smith as their producer. Debut single, It’s All Leading Up to Saturday Night, failed to chart.

Third single, I See the Rain, featuring a nice pop-psych sound, was lauded by Jimi Hendrix as the best single of 1967. By this point, the line-up had settled down to Ford on lead vocals, Patrick Fairley on six-string bass, Campbell on guitar and keyboards, Raymond Duffy on drums and Graham Knight on bass. The Marmalade were now making waves, supporting the Pink Floyd and performing at festivals during the Summer of Love. But they still weren’t charting, and CBS were beginning to get impatient.

The Marmalade rejected Everlasting Love, which became a number 1 for Love Affair in 1968. Eventually, to get CBS off their backs, they recorded Lovin’ Things, and reached number six in the charts. Also that year they released their debut album, There’s a Lot of It About.

In late 1968 they were offered Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da by publisher Dick James. Allegedly, the band had no idea it was by Paul McCartney when they agreed. It had yet to be released on the Beatles’ eponymous double album.

McCartney wrote this bright and breezy ska-influenced ditty during the Beatles time in Rishikesh, India, earlier that year. The song’s title and chorus came from Nigerian musician Jimmy Scott. Apparently his backing band were called Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da, and in live shows he would call out ‘Ob la di’, to which the audience would respond ‘Ob la da’, and he would then conclude ‘Life goes on.’ The ‘Desmond’ of the song was inspired by rising ska star Desmond Dekker.

The fact McCartney would steal the phrase for his own means caused some consternation between he and Scott, and Scott threatened legal action until he came to an agreement with Macca to drop the case if the Beatle would pay his legal bills to get him out of Brixton Prison (he had failed to pay maintenance to his ex-wife).

John Lennon hated Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da, so it was ironic he came up with the best part of the Beatles version when he banged away on the piano in the intro in pure frustration. McCartney had planned to release their version as a single, but Lennon was having none of it. George Harrison wasn’t a fan of either, and he wasn’t singing its praises when he namechecked it on Savoy Truffle.

The Marmalade’s version is inferior from the start, ditching that piano intro and any ska influence, preferring to turn it into a jolly, soft knees-up. They even replace ‘Bra’ with ‘Woah’. You could never call the Beatles recording edgy, yet it is by comparison to this. Not different enough to be interesting in any way, it’s reminiscent of the Overlanders’ number 1 version of Michelle. The most noteworthy bit is right at the end, where, instead of singing ‘If you want some fun, take Ob-La-Di-Bla-Da’, they replace ‘fun’ with ‘jam’. Marmalade, y’see.

Like that cover, Beatles fans flocked to the record anyway, and the Marmalade were at number 1 for the first week of January, before being overtaken by 1968’s Christmas number 1, Lily the Pink, by the Scaffold, once more. The Marmalade eventually won out, with a further fortnight as top of the pops.

In November of that year they signed a lucrative deal with Decca, which meant they could write and produce their own material with no time restraints in the studio. This resulted in their biggest hit worldwide, Reflections of My Life, an unusual early prog-rock-sounding ballad, which is superior to their number 1 single.

The beginning of the end of the group’s fame came when Campbell chose to leave in 1971. The hits carried on for a while longer, including Cousin Norman and Radancer, but line-up changes came thick and fast. In 1973 they signed with EMI, and dropped the ‘The’ from their name. Apart from a hit with Falling Apart at the Seams in 1976, none of their singles charted.

During the 1980s an incarnation of Marmalade toured the nostalgia circuit, with Knight as the sole member from their heyday. Dave Dee began occasionally performing with them from 1987 until his death in 2009. Knight departed the following year. Dean Ford passed away on New Year’s Eve last year due to complications from Parkinson’s. Despite no original members, Marmalade continue to jam. Sorry.

Also in that first week of 1969, Australian media mogul and all-round nasty piece of work Rupert Murdoch purchased best-selling Sunday newspaper The News of the World on 2 January. Three days later, riots in Derry left over a hundred people injured.

On 18 January, former drummer with the Beatles, Pete Best, won his defamation lawsuit against the band. Six days later there was unrest when violent protests by students resulted in the closure of the London School of Econoics for three weeks. This resulted in the students occupying the University of London Union three days later.

Written by: John Lennon & Paul McCartney

Producer: Mike Smith

Weeks at number 1: 3 (1-7, 15-28 January)

Births:

Lawyer Mary Macleod – 4 January

Deaths:

Conjoined twin actresses Violet and Daisy Hilton – 4 January

257. Bee Gees – I’ve Gotta Get a Message to You (1968)

154. Bee Gees 1968 BGSC1 copy.jpg

British tennis player Virginia Wade made headlines on 8 September when she defeated Billie Jean King to win the US Open Women’s Singles event. It was her first Grand Slam singles title and her only one at the US Open. That week, the Bee Gees had their second and last number 1 of the 1960s.

Since the success of Massachusetts, the Gibb brothers (and co) had continued work on their second album to be released internationally. Horizontal, which hit the shops in February 1968, featured their first number 1, and another hit, World. Guitarist Vince Melouney and drummer Colin Petersen had an increased influence this time around, meaning Horizontal was heavier and darker than the very-1967 Bee Gees 1st.

From there, the Bee Gees made their first appearance on US television and toured the world. They also turned down the opportunity to write and perform the soundtrack for Joe Massot’s psychedelic Wonderwall (1968), which was eventually taken on by George Harrison.

Their single, Words, became one of the most famous Bee Gees ballads, but follow-up Jumbo/The Singer Sang His Song only reached number 25 – their worst chart performance up to that point. But the band were recording like their lives depended on it – in June they finished recording their next album, Idea, and the following month they set to work on Odessa. Despite this purple patch, tensions were growing.

On 12 July, during early sessions for Odessa, they set to work on their next number 1 song. It’s believed that Robin wrote the lyrics for I’ve Gotta Get a Message to You ‘on the spot’, with the music coming jointly from him and his brothers. Robin decided to write from the viewpoint of a man on Death Row that had murdered his wife’s lover, who was determined that the prison chaplain send a final message to her.

This urgent slice of blue-eyed soul ditches the gentle psych-folk of Massachussets and is more like their other early classic, To Love Somebody. Thematically of course, it’s similar to Tom Jones’s Green, Green Grass of Home – but better. Perhaps it’s the fact that the singer committed a crime of passion due to his wife’s affair, but it’s so much easier to identify with and feel sympathy for this character than Tom when you compare the two.

I’ve Gotta Get a Message to You is never included in lists of Bee Gees classics, but I really love it. It’s rather earnest, and melodramatic, but all the better for it. Originally it was intended for soul singer Percy Sledge, who did cover it. The pleading, plaintive vocals hit the spot, as always with the Gibbs (co-producer and manager Robert Stigwood had called the singers back to the studio that night to record the three-part harmonies), and the chorus is really addictive. The bass is especially good, courtesy of Maurice, who at the time was a huge admirer of Paul McCartney’s style, and it’s also him on the mellotron, which makes the chorus even more memorable.

Confusingly, there are five versions, all made from a single recording, in stereo, mono, played at different speeds, with different fade-outs, and percussion and strings sounds at varying volume. The percussion is a little off-putting actually, when too high, as it sounds like a CD track that’s stuttering. The mono single version has it all about right, though.

The Bee Gees also recorded a video, which you can see above, featuring the group performing in a white room on a revolving platform. Simple but effective, unlike Barry’s all-in-one black blouse, which is a bit much, really.

Released just before Idea, but not included on the UK version of the album, I’ve Gotta Get a Message to You only spent a week at number 1 before Hey Jude took over. In the US, it became their first top ten hit. But things soon turned sour for the Bee Gees. Since 1967 they had been seen superstars, and potential rivals to the Beatles. As we know, however, the wilderness years beckoned. Melouney and Petersen wouId soon quit, and then Robin would briefly leave. It would be a full decade before they had another number 1 single.

Written by: Barry, Robin & Maurice Gibb

Producer: Robert Stigwood & Bee Gees

Weeks at number 1: 1 (4-10 September)

Births:

Anti-war activist Anas Altikriti – 9 September
Actress Julia Sawalha – 9 September

Deaths:

Golfer Tommy Armour – 12 September