247. The Beatles – Lady Madonna (1968)

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April Fool’s Day 1968 saw the formation of Thames Valley Police due to the amalgamation of Berkshire Constabulary, Buckingham Constabulary, Oxford City Police, Oxford Constabulary and Reading Borough Police. Six days later, Scottish Formula One driver Jim Clark shocked the racing world when he was killed in an accident in Hockenheim, West Germany. Still considered one of the greatest drivers in F1, Clark was only 32 when he died.

The Beatles were at number 1 for the 15th time with the back-to-basics sound of Lady Madonna. Still smarting from the poor reception of the Magical Mystery Tour film, which went over the heads of the average television viewer on Boxing Day 1967, the Fab Four began 1968 by filming their cameo appearance at the end of the animated movie Yellow Submarine, released six months later.

Despite the relative failure of Magical Mystery Tour, they were still ruling the charts with Hello, Goodbye when Paul McCartney first unveiled Lady Madonna to some friends he had visited with girlfriend Jane Asher around Christmas time. As usual, the Beatles were ahead of the curve by perhaps sensing that psychedelia could soon be in danger of becoming predictable. Now even the Rolling Stones were ripping off Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Why not replace studio trickery with a blast from the past?

Lady Madonna was McCartney returning to the boogie-woogie rock’n’roll of his youth. The piano lick was inspired (I’d say stolen) from jazzman Humphrey Lyttelton’s Bad Penny Blues. The single, released on Parlophone in 1956, had been the first jazz song to reach the UK top 20, and was produced by Joe Meek. Playing around with his voice, McCartney also found his new song reminiscent of Fats Domino, and so he would make his voice deeper and bluesier by way of tribute. There was a further link back to 1956 here – Domino had a hit in 1956 with a version of Blue Monday (not the New Order classic), in which he sang of the plight of the working man, taking it a day at a time.

McCartney chose a similar lyrical approach, only he chose to do it from a working class, possibly single, mother’s perspective. John Lennon helped out with the lyrics, but it was mainly all McCartney, who years later said the title of the song was inspired by a photograph he saw in National Geographic of a woman breastfeeding, entitled ‘Mountain Madonna’. One lyric however, is unmistakably Lennon – ‘See how they run’ was lifted from I Am the Walrus. The Beatles were going through a phase of referencing earlier songs in newer material, something which would help inspire the ‘Paul Is Dead’ conspiracy. A clever way of using your back catalogue, or a sign of the creative well beginning to dry? Possibly a bit of both.

With little in the way of new material, The Beatles decided they needed to release a single as a stop-gap in the spring, while they attended a Trancendental Meditation course with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in Rishikesh, India. Lady Madonna’s only competition at the time was Lennon’s whistful Across the Universe. This beautiful version would eventually surface with animal noises overdubbed in December 1969 on the World Wildlife Fund’s compilation No One’s Gonna Change Our World. Often Lennon would put up a fight for his own material to be the A-side, but this time he knew Lady Madonna was a stronger commercial track, even though he felt it didn’t really go anywhere, and he even relented from taking the B-side, giving George Harrison the slot for the first time with the mystic The Inner Light.

The single was completed fast, with John, Paul, George and Ringo finishing up in just two sessions on 3 and 6 February. At the first session McCartney laid down the piano, with advice from producer George Martin on how to replicate the Bad Penny Blues sound, and Starr accompanied him on snare drum, playing with brushes. Lennon and Harrison then added identical distorted guitar riffs. Then, McCartney overdubbed his bass, with Starr on full drumkit, plus McCartney recorded his vocal and Lennon and Harrison joined him on backing vocals. Studio experimentation hadn’t been completely abandoned – for the instrumental break, they decided to impersonate the Mills Brothers, who would replicate brass instruments with their voices, and simply blew into their cupped hands.

The second session was organised at short notice after the Beatles realised they needed something extra. They quickly assembled a four-piece horn section, which included famous jazz musician and club owner Ronnie Scott on tenor saxophone. So hastily arranged was the session, the band neglected to tell the horn section what to play, which explains why Scott’s solo in the break sounds so pissed off.

Lady Madonna is unlikely to rank as anyone’s favourite Beatles single, but it does have vim and vigour. Starr is in fine fettle, laying down a simple but effectively thunderous beat. Lennon had a point in saying it didn’t really go anywhere, and the lyrics seem rather tossed off, and even, when McCartney sings ‘Did you think that money was heaven sent?’, rather patronising. Perhaps it wasn’t the point McCartney was trying to make, as he sounds sympathetic on the whole, but there is an element of ‘will this do?’ again about the lyrics. Whether that’s because Lennon was still too high to be bothered to contribute much and/or rein in Macca’s excesses, or it’s a sign that they were starting to care less about the band, we’ll never know.

Luckily, McCartney still had a bloody good ear for a melody, and Lady Madonna is very easy to enjoy when you hear it. But how often do you deliberately choose to listen to it? I’m not sure I ever have.

Two promos were filmed for Lady Madonna, with Tony Bramwell joining them at Abbey Road on 11 February to record them miming to the track. There was a change of plan though, and instead they were filmed while they recorded Lennon’s bluesy rocker Hey Bulldog, which ended up on the Yellow Submarine soundtrack.

Despite the relative lack of care given to Lady Madonna, their final single for Parlophone quickly climbed to the top within a few weeks of its release in March. However, it didn’t go to number 1 in the US, signalling that perhaps their influence was declining somewhat. Or maybe not – once again, the Beatles were at the forefront of popular culture, and other high-profile acts like the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan and Elvis Presley all deciding a return to their musical roots was the way forward.

Written by: John Lennon & Paul McCartney

Producer: George Martin

Weeks at number 1: 2 (27 March-9 April)

Births:

Cricketer Nasser Hussain – 28 March
Television presenter Jenny Powell – 8 April

Deaths:

Scottish race car driver Jim Clark – 7 April 

242. Georgie Fame – The Ballad of Bonnie and Clyde (1968)

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On with 1968, then, and what a strange year of number 1s it is. We have the good, the bad, and even The Good, the Bad and the Ugly to listen to.

The Beatles were still at number 1 for most of January with their Christmas chart-topper, Hello, Goodbye, before finally running out of steam. They were replaced by Lancashire-born jazz cat Georgie Fame and his third and last number 1, The Ballad of Bonnie and Clyde.

Before hearing this track I assumed it would be taken from the soundtrack to the 1967 movie Bonnie and Clyde, starring Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway. I was wrong, but that didn’t surprise me, as not only have I never seen the film, I don’t actually know much about the subject matter either.

Arthur Penn’s multi-Academy Award-winning landmark crime biography detailed the rise and fall of Bonnie Parker and Clyde Burrow. In the Great Depression of the 1930s, the duo captured the imagination of the US on a two-year crime spree. Although the romantic image of the duo as Robin Hood-style characters has endured, the reality is their many bungled robberies resulted in innocent people being killed. The movie is considered one of the first films of the New Hollywood era, prompting more filmmakers to show sex and violence in their work. At the time, the duo’s death was considered a truly shocking end to a Hollywood movie.

Songwriters Mitch Murray (the man behind both Gerry and the Pacemakers number 1s – How Do You Do It? and I Like It) and Peter Callander saw the film and felt inspired to write a 30s-style jazz spoof telling the tale of the duo. Georgie Fame, who had enjoyed two number 1s with his backing band the Blue Flames (Yeh Yeh and Get Away) was the perfect artist to record their new track.

Since Get Away topped the charts, the band had enjoyed two further top 20 hits with Sunny and Sitting in the Park. They released one more album, Sweet Thing in 1966, before Fame chose to sign with CBS Records and go solo. The Blue Flames disbanded, and drummer Mitch Mitchell became a third of the Jimi Hendrix Experience soon after. Fame released his first solo album Sound Venture later that year. His first two solo singles failed to chart, but The Ballad of Bonnie and Clyde, released in 1967, became number 1, and was his only top ten hit in the US.

This quirky, rickety little track certainly gets 1968 off to a weird start. It may not have been in the film, but without it, there’s no way Fame would have outsold the Beatles. It’s not without its charm, and I always enjoy a Georgie Fame vocal, but by reducing the story of Bonnie and Clyde to a bit of fun, it’s nothing more than a throwaway novelty track.

It’s quite a sparse recording, featuring mainly Fame and a banjo, but there’s some brass too, plus sound affects, including the sound of gunfire as it reaches its climax. I think we’re supposed to go ‘Awww!’ when Fame sings ‘Bonnie and Clyde/They lived a lot together/And finally together/They died’, which is going a bit easy on bankrobbing murderers really. I’m now trying to imagine other inappropriate tunes, such as The Ballad of Fred and Rose West, or Peter Sutcliffe’a Sad Sad Song.

Fame’s hits began to dry up soon after, but Somebody Stole My Thunder in 1970 is a strong shot of R’n’B. He formed a partnership with organist Alan Price, formerly of the Animals, and they had a hit with Rosetta in 1971, but they split two years later. Much of the early 70s was spent writing jingles for television and radio, and making the soundtrack for the Till Death Us Do Part big-screen spin-off, The Alf Garnett Saga (1972). In 1974 he reformed the Blue Flames, but by the 80s he was back in the advert industry.

In 1989 he began working with cantankerous Irish singer-songwriter Van Morrison as his producer and performing in his live band, as well as recording their collaborative LP, How Long Has This Been Going On in 1996. This partnership lasted until 1998, with occasional work together ever since.

Fame suffered tragedy in 1993 when his wife, Nicolette Powell, jumped off the Clifton Suspension Bridge to her death. They had married in 1972 after having a baby while she was still married to Alistair Vane-Tempest-Stewart, 9th Marquess of Londonderry. When tests proved the baby was theirs, the Marchioness had divorced him for Fame. Suffering from depression, Powell had left a suicide note in which she said she had no purpose in life now their children had grown up.

In 1998 Fame also became a founding member of former Rolling Stone Bill Wyman’s Rhythm Kings, with whom he worked for a couple of years before going it alone again. He has released albums ever since and has performed at Glastonbury Festival. His live band sometimes includes his two sons Tristan and James. What a shame Nicolette didn’t live to enjoy their performances.

Written by: Mitch Murray & Peter Callander

Producer: Mike Smith

Weeks at number 1: 1 (24-30 January)

Births:

Journalist Matthew d’Ancona – 27 January
Rapper Tricky – 27 January

Deaths:

Spymaster Maxwell Knight – 27 January 

118. The Temperance Seven with vocal refrain by Mr Paul McDowell – You’re Driving Me Crazy (1961)

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The 1961 number 1s really were all over the place, and this is as sure a sign as any. The Temperance Seven were a group of young men performing jazz covers from the 1920s and 30s, and their cover of You’re Driving Me Crazy was an affectionate look back to an earlier period in recorded music – indeed, the era in which vinyl recordings first became popular. They were retro before the term existed (I think).

The Temperance Seven were founded at Christmas in 1955 by students at the Chelsea School of Art. Its three founder members were Paul McDowell on trombone, Phillip Harrison on banjo and drummer Brian Innes. Eventually they expanded to a nine-piece, and their name was suggested to them by Douggie Gray from the Alberts, an influential comedy group of the era. Why the number seven, when there were nine of them? It’s an ironic use of the word ‘temperance’ which my tired brain doesn’t really get right now. In 1960 they recorded with Goons comedian Peter Sellers, and their producer was George Martin. Martin had joined EMI in 1950, and took over the Parlophone imprint five years later. It was regarded as relatively unimportant back then, and was mostly used for classical, novelty and comedy recordings. Martin’s work with Sellers became well-known, and more and more comedians began working with him, so the Temperance Seven seemed a natural act for Martin to produce.

You’re Driving Me Crazy had been written by Walter Donaldson in 1930. The song became a hit for several acts, including Lee Morse. It also featured in the racy Betty Boop cartoon, Silly Scandals, the following year. While singing the song, Boop’s dress kept falling down, to reveal a lacy bra and make her squeal. Shocking stuff at the time. Like many of Donaldson’s songs, this track became a standard, and was later recorded by Frank Sinatra, Mel Tormé and Peggy Lee, to name but a few. Donaldson also wrote Makin’ Whoopee, My Baby Just Cares For Me, and Yes Sir, That’s My Baby.

I’ve been a huge fan of the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band for decades, and have seen the Temperance Seven name-checked many times in relation to them, so I had high hopes for You’re Driving Me Crazy, but was left rather disappointed. There’s none of the anarchic spirit of the Bonzos here, it just seems a very straight and stiff run-through of a Donaldson song that isn’t as good as any of the ones I’ve listed above. McDowell’s vocal doesn’t have the character that dear old Vivian Stanshall had. I now understand why some Bonzo band members would be annoyed by the Temperance Seven comparison – it’s quite lazy really. The intro and the end go on far too long too, though that is entirely in keeping with most recordings of the 20s and 30s. Having said that, I like Martin’s production just before the final vocal kicks in, in which the instruments create this kind-of circular sound (my apologies, I’m not great with proper musical terms).

Nonetheless, for a time the Temperance Seven were big, with Paul McDowell having to quit his role in the Experimental Theatre Club revue. He was replaced by future Monty Python’s Flying Circus member Terry Jones. Later in the summer of 61 they appeared at the London Palladium for a fortnight run as top of the bill. It was never going to last, though, and the original incarnation disbanded in the mid-60s, just as the Bonzos were starting to make a name for themselves with riotous performances at the Bull’s Head in Barnes. Chris Hook took charge of the band when they reformed in the 80s, and this incarnation still tours today. McDowell went on to star in Porridge as Mr Collinson, and died aged 84 in 2016. And producer George Martin? Well, his name is going to crop up a fair few more times, obviously.

Written by: Walter Donaldson

Producer: George Martin

Weeks at number 1: 1 (25-31 May)

Births:

Comedian Harry Enfield – 30 May