Death discs! Remember them? No? Don’t worry, it’s been a while. They hadn’t been in fashion since the mid-60s, and the last proper one to top the charts was Johnny Remember Me in 1961. Yet here we are in 1974, with two in a row. First, thanks to their success on Opportunity Knocks, Nottingham-based pop group Paper Lace were at number 1 with Billy – Don’t Be a Hero.
Paper Lace formed in 1967 as Music Box, consisting of Cliff Fish, Dave Manders, Roy White and Phil Wright. They performed contemporary covers by bands including The Beach Boys. In 1969 they became Paper Lace, named after their city’s long history with lace. While working their way through club gigs a year later they auditioned for Opportunity Knocks, the ITV talent show presented by Hughie Green. Nothing came of it at first, but they signed with Philips and released the album First Edition in 1972. The following year they were finally called up to appear on Opportunity Knocks, and they went down a storm, winning five weeks on the trot. By this point, the band consisted of Philip Wright on drums and lead vocals (very unusual, especially in these days), Mick Vaughan on guitar, Fish was still there on bass, and Chris Morris on guitar and vocals.
Meanwhile, hitmaking duo Mitch Murray and Peter Callander, last seen on this blog having written 1968 number 1 The Ballad of Bonnie and Clyde for Georgie Fame, had written Billy – Don’t Be a Hero and were looking for someone to record it. Murray, the man behind Gerry and the Pacemakers’ three number 1s in 1963, wanted an established group to record it, but Callander’s wife saw Paper Lace on TV and suggested them to her husband.
Opening to a chirpy military drumbeat and whistling, Paper Lace’s solo number 1 is the weakest chart-topper of 1974 thus far. It sounds more like a single from the golden era of death discs and it’s too cheesy and naff to get much enjoyment out of. As an anti-war song, some suspect it was a brave move for Billy – Don’t Be a Hero to be released during the Vietnam War and that it was a comment on the situation, but clearly it wasn’t. There are references to ‘soldier-blues’ and ‘riding out’, and on publicity photos and one Top of the Pops appearance, the band (now bolstered by new member Carlo Santanna – not Carlos Santana – on guitar and mandolin), they’re wearing Union outfits. It’s a song about the American Civil War.
But yes, whichever war it’s about, the message is a good one. Don’t be a hero Billy, stay and marry your fiancée. But alas, no. Come the final verse, Billy has indeed died a hero, and his girlfriend throws the letter away. There’s no denying Callander and Murray in particular know how to write a tune, but their songs sound so stale in a year where disco is right around the corner. Having said that, it is unfortunately perhaps a sign of things to come, because there are some truly awful pop songs to come throughout the rest of the decade too.
Considering the subject matter, you’d think Paper Lace might have had a chance with a hit in the US. So it must have been pretty annoying when Bo Donaldson and the Heywoods got in there first and went to number 1 with their rushed cover. The Nottingham boys had more luck second time around though, when Murray and Callander gave them Prohibition-set tune The Night Chicago Died as a follow-up. It climbed to number three on these shores, but they scored a number 1 on the Billboard Hot 100. Third collaboration, The Black-Eyed Boys, just missed out on the top 10, also in 1974. With their second album, Paper Lace and Other Bits of Material released too, it was a busy year. It didn’t take long for Paper Lace to unravel though, and by 1976 the ‘classic’ line-up was no more.
Paper Lace resurfaced with different members in 1978 and scored a top 30 hit when they teamed up with Nottingham Forest FC to record a version of We’ve Got the Whole World in Our Hands. They split up in 1980 but by 1983 another version had formed. In 1990 Wright, Vaughan and Morris re-recorded Billy – Don’t Be a Hero but it was never released due to the Gulf War. The original was on a list of songs banned by the BBC at the time.
These days there are two versions of Paper Lace, each containing different members from their hitmaking days. Why can’t everyone just learn to get along?
Written & produced by: Mitch Murray & Pete Callander
Weeks at number 1: 3 (16 March-5 April)
Snooker player Mark King – 28 March
Radio DJ Scott Mills – 28 March
Conservative MP John Glen – 1 April
18 March: Most OPEC nations end a five-month oil embargo against the US, Europe and Japan.
20 March: After wounding four people, crazed gunman Ian Ball fails in his attempt to kidnap Princess Anne and her husband Captain Mark Phillips in The Mall, outside Buckingham Palace. When he wrestled her to the floor of the Rolls-Royce and commanded her to get out, the princess’s response was ‘Not bloody likely!’. Passing heavyweight boxer Ronnie Russell came to the rescue, punching Ball twice in the head. Princess Anne’s parting words were ‘Just go away and don’t be such a silly man.’ Ball is still ‘away’, in Broadmoor Hospital.
29 March: The new Labour government re-establishes direct rule over Northern Ireland after declaring a state of emergency.
1 April: The Local Government Act 1972 comes into effect in England and Wales, creating six new metropolitan counties and redrawing the administrative map. Newport and Monmouthshire are legally transferred from England to Wales.