314. Don McLean – Vincent (1972)

US singer-songwriter Don McLean is best known for American Pie, his folk-rock epic that referenced the plane crash that killed some of the brightest stars of the 50s. However, his first UK number 1 was its follow-up, the ode to Dutch artist Vincent Van Gogh, Vincent.

Donald McLean III was born 2 October 1945 in New Rochelle, New York, with roots on his father’s side to Scotland. His mother was Italian. The young McLean suffered severe asthma and was forced to miss long periods of school, so he took solace in folk music, particularly The Weavers.

When McLean was 15, his father died and he immersed himself in music once more, buying his first guitar and starting to make contacts in the industry, including befriending Fred Hellerman from The Weavers. He graduated from preparatory school in 1963 and dropped out of Villanova University after four months and became a part-time student so he could devote himself to folk music. He became a regular at venues in New York and Los Angeles.

1968 was a pivotal year for McLean, where he finally chose music over education. He turned down a scholarship in Colombia and later on received a grant from the New York State Council on the Arts to expand his live performances. He took advice from folk legend Pete Seeger and supported him in 1969.

While the Berkeley student riots went on around him in California, McLean recorded his debut album Tapestry. The album was rejected 72 times, until the small label Mediarts released it in 1970. McLean may well have remained unknown, had the company not been bought out by United Artists Records. With a much bigger budget behind him, he recorded his follow-up American Pie.

As the world knows, the title track, released in late 1971 after the album, was the biggest song of McLean’s career. This sprawling epic, inspired by the deaths of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper in 1959, popularised the term ‘the day the music died’ after the plane crash that killed them. It also charted his youth and developments in youth culture – at least, that’s the theory, as McLean has never explained. American Pie reached number one on the Billboard Hot 100, but stalled at number two in the UK. It took Madonna to make it a number 1, in 2000.

Track three on the LP, Vincent, was inspired by McLean looking through a book about Van Gogh one morning. One of the artworks he came across was The Starry Night. This oil on canvas, pained in June 1889, depicted Van Gogh’s view from the east-facing window of his asylum room at Saint-Rémy-de-Provence psychiatric hospital. Van Gogh was prone to psychotic episodes and delusions, and had famously cut off part of his left ear during an argument with Paul Gaugin. Van Gogh had entered this hospital a month prior to his painting, and a year later he was dead from a self-inflicted shot to the chest.

The Starry Night is a beautiful painting, and the opening to Vincent is too.

‘Starry starry night
Paint your palette blue and grey
Look out on a summer’s day
With eyes that know the darkness in my soul’

Unfortunately, it’s downhill from there. I must admit Vincent has never interested me beyond that intro and upon further research, I’m put off even less. The lyrics are rather patronising – McLean gives the impression that he understands the fate of Van Gogh because he too is some kind of tortured genius, and that we mere normal people will never understand it. Maybe so, but this isn’t a work of genius, it’s average, and I have to confess I’ve always found American Pie somewhat overrated too. So yes, McLean, to paraphrase, I would not listen, I’m not listening still, and perhaps I never will. I can live with that.

It would be eight years before McLean’s next number 1, a cover of Roy Orbison’s Crying.

Written by: Don McLean

Producer: Ed Freeman

Weeks at number 1: 2 (17-30 June)

Meanwhile…

18 June: British European Airways Flight 548 crashed near Staines in Surrey. 116 of the 118 people on board were dead by the time ambulances arrived, and the two survivors died before reaching hospital. It was the worst UK disaster for 16 years, until the Lockerbie bombing. An inquiry later revealed the pilot had a heart condition and an argument with crew may have caused the plane to have a deep stall.

23 June: Chancellor of the Exchequer Anthony Barber announced a decision to float the pound as a temporary measure. It has floated ever since.

203. The Walker Brothers with accompaniment directed by Ivor Raymonde – Make It Easy on Yourself (1965)

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Long before Scott Walker was ordering a percussionist to punch a side of pork, he was a 60s pop idol with his pretend siblings. The Walker Brothers first found fame with this first of two number 1s, Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s Make It Easy On Yourself.

John Maus, born in New York on 12 November 1943, was a child television star. In the late 50s he was friends with Ritchie Valens, and following the La Bamba hitmaker’s tragic death, he was an honorary pallbearer at his funeral. Later, he befriended future Beach Boys David Marks and Dennis and Carl Wilson, and he helped teach them how to play the guitar. He formed a musical partnership with his sister, and they were known as the acoustic duo John and Judy. In 1961, they met Scott Engel.

Engel, born in Hamilton, Ohio on 9 January 1943, had also been a child actor and singer, and in the late 50s he was marketed as a teen idol, with Eddie Fisher (one of the first number 1 stars in the UK) pushing him for stardom. Engel had intellectual tastes from an early age, and loved progressive jazz, Beat poetry and European cinema. When he met John Maus he was in the instrumental group The Routers.

Engel and Maus briefly backed John’s sister and they became Judy and the Gents. Somewhere around this time, the 17-year-old Maus got hold of an ID card for John Walker, enabling him to perform in clubs while underage. The name stuck, and he was sick of people getting his surname wrong anyway. After breaking away from Judy Maus, Engel and Walker were briefly part of The Surfaris, the group that had recorded Wipeout in 1963. At least, they were part of the touring group, none of whom recorded their singles.

In 1964, they decided to work together as The Walker Brothers Trio, with Al ‘Tiny’ Schneider on drums. Walker was lead vocalist and guitarist and Engel was bassist and provided harmony vocals. At some point Schneider left and they continued as a duo before meeting new drummer Gary Leeds (born 9 March 1942 in Glendale, California).

All three were photogenic and soon ended up on TV shows including Shindig. They signed with Mercury Records and recorded their debut single, Pretty Girls Everywhere. It was Maus’ idea they should all take the surname Walker.

I find it odd that Engel continued to go by the name Scott Walker for the rest of his life. I guess he must have had a soft spot for his time as a pop star.

Gary Walker had recently toured the UK with PJ Proby, and convinced John and Scott that The Walker Brothers should try their luck as pop stars on these shores. It was his father that financed their first trip early in 1965. Their first single barely scraped into the charts, but they had better luck with Love Her. This follow-up featured Scott on lead vocal, and upon its success, Scott began moving into the lead spot in the trio.

They found an ideal producer in Johnny Franz. He was one of the top UK producers of the 50s and 60s, and by this point had produced six UK number 1s, from Winifred Atwell’s Let’s Have Another Party in 1954 to Juliet by The Four Pennies in 1964. Franz was very effective at lavishly orchestrated 60s pop, which made him a natural choice to produce a Bacharach and David song. Make It Easy on Yourself was a decent slab of break-up melodrama from the genius duo, and became the songwriters’ sixth UK number 1. It had first been a hit in 1962 for Jerry Butler, based on a demo from Dionne Warwick.

Make It Easy on Yourself comes out on the losing side when compared to that other big heartbreak song of 1965, You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’. Nobody does the Wall of Sound better than the creator, Phil Spector. Having said that, The Walker Brothers and Franz put in a decent job. The track opens with a wordless version of the chorus, and that first line, ‘Breaking up is so very hard to do’, set to Scott’s smooth baritone, sets things off nicely. It can’t keep the momentum going though, and the verses don’t have the tension and drama of the Righteous Brothers’ number 1. How many songs do, though? Oh, this song also features legendary session drummer Clem Cattini, who took part in a frankly ridiculously long list of UK number 1s over the years, the most recent of which had been The Bachelors’ snore-fest Diane in 1964.

Scott’s vocal is perhaps a little too polished and mannered to carry off the emotion… unless this is a deliberate ploy to make the protagonist sound in denial. You can easily imagine several other singers’ releasing this, such as Cilla Black, which means The Walker Brothers, in particular Scott, were still too green to put their own stamp on their releases. Their next number 1 was a big improvement.

Written by: Burt Bacharach & Hal David

Producer: Johnny Franz

Weeks at number 1: 1 (23-29 September)

Births:

Olympic athelete Phylis Smith – 29 September 

102. Eddie Cochran – Three Steps to Heaven (1960)

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Following Buddy Holly’s death, record labels soon cottoned on to the effectiveness of a posthumous single, with It Doesn’t Matter Anymore hitting the top soon after the infamous plane crash that instantly killed him, JP Richardson (The Big Bopper) and Ritchie Valens in 1959. A year later, Holly’s friend and fellow young rockabilly and rock’n’roll talent Eddie Cochran also died tragically, and soon after, he too reached the number 1 spot.

Cochran was born on 3 October 1938 in Albert Lea, Minnesota. He became hooked on music in his early teens, learning guitar and playing along to country songs he heard on the radio. The family moved to California in 1952, and Cochran soon dropped out of high school to take the risk and become a full-time musician. He formed a duo with Hank Cochran, and they became The Cochran Brothers (they weren’t related).

During this time he also began writing material for himself and demoing solo work in studios when he could. Like his future friend Buddy Holly, he was naturally gifted from a young age, and keen to progress musically.

Cochran received his big break in 1956, when he was asked to appear in the musical comedy The Girl Can’t Help It, starring Jayne Mansfield. The rock’n’roll element of the film was originally intended as a satirical subplot, but all it did was speed up the genre’s popularity by bringing rock’n’roll onto the big screen. Eddie Cochran performed Twenty Flight Rock. The performance was so iconic, Paul McCartney later used it as his audition piece to join John Lennon’s The Quarrymen (see here). With his film idol looks and a killer track, Cochran was bound for stardom.

The summer of 1958 saw the release of his most famous work. The self-penned Summertime Blues is of course, a classic, perhaps most famously covered by The Who. Further great tracks followed, including C’mon, Everybody (later re-released on the back of its appearance in a Levi’s jeans advert in 1988) and Something Else. Both these tracks were covered by the Sex Pistols, but after Johnny Rotten had departed.

Cochran’s interest in getting the best out of recording in a studio was developing, and all his classic tracks featured guitar overdubs to create that unique sound. I wonder how this would have developed had he lived when psychedelia became popular?

Cochran was deeply affected by the deaths of Holly, Richardson and Valens, and recorded Three Stars in tribute to them. He began to have premonitions that he too would die young, and told family and friends that he wanted to spend more time in the studio to avoid suffering a similar fate. However, he needed the money, and pop impresario Larry Parnes made him an offer he couldn’t refuse. At the time, Parnes had quite a stable of homegrown rock’n’roll stars, including Billy Fury, Johnny Gentle (love that name) and Tony Sheridan (who the Beatles later backed, on their recording debut). Cochran accepted the offer to travel to the UK, along with his friend, Gene Vincent, and be the two biggest acts on the tour. Rock’n’roll fans loved the shows, and Cochran has been credited as having introduced the music of Ray Charles to UK audiences, with a blistering performance of What’d I Say.

The final show, at the Bristol Hippodrome, took place on 16 April. Cochran and his fiancée Sharon Sheeley were keen to get back to the US, and he asked for a lift with Gentle, but his car was full. Instead, the couple, Vincent and tour manager Pat Thompkins opted for a taxi. Travelling through Chippenham, Wiltshire, the speeding taxi blew a tire at a notorious black spot. The driver, George Martin (thankfully not the Beatles producer) lost control, and the car span backwards into a lamppost. Instinctively, Cochran threw himself over Sheeley to protect her, but a door flew open and he was thrown out of the car. Martin, Thompkins and Sheeley were uninjured, and Vincent had broken his collarbone, but Cochran’s head injuries were fatal. Martin was convicted for dangerous driving but had his license returned in 1969, but one of the music world’s most promising stars was gone, aged only 21.

Three Steps to Heaven had been recorded that January, with backing from The Crickets. It has their mark all over it, and is unlike Cochran’s earlier tracks, adopting the prevailing soft-pop sound of the time. Cochran adopts a smooth croon, not unlike Elvis, and the backing vocals bring to mind those of The Jordanaires. The three steps to heaven are to fall in love, get someone to fall in love with you back, and make them feel loved.

It hasn’t aged as well as his other hits, but the opening riff is classic Cochran, and David Bowie seems to have been a fan, having come up with something very similar on Hunky Dory‘s Queen Bitch in 1971. The lyrics to Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps)’ opening track, It’s No Game (No. 1) in 1980 also mention ‘free steps to heaven’.

Whether it would have been released as a single had Cohran not died, I’m not sure, but it’s mention of heaven made it a natural choice. Strangely, the song didn’t do nearly as well in his home country. Perhaps the fact the accident took place in the UK made the tragedy hit his British fans harder.

Over the years, Cochran’s star seems to have diminished, which seems a shame. He was one of the most innovative and influential musicians of the 50s. In addition to the stars already mentioned, guitar god Jimi Hendrix had Cochran played at his funeral, on his request. After a gig at the Hackney Empire, Cochran allowed a 13-year-old fan to carry his guitar out to a waiting limousine. The boy, Marc Feld, later became Marc Bolan, who was also to later die in a car accident. Following the crash which killed Cochran, his guitar was impounded at the police station, and a local policeman, David Harman, used the instrument to teach himself how to play. Harman went on to become Dave Dee, of Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Tich fame. A memorial plaque was placed at the site of the accident, and was restored on the 50th anniversary in 2010.

Written by: Eddie Cochran & Bob Cochran

Producers: Eddie Cochran & Jerry Capeheart

Weeks at number 1: 2 (23 June-6 July) 

Births:

Erasure songwriter Vince Clarke – 3 July

Deaths:

Tennis player Lottie Dod – 27 June
Politician Aneurin Bevan – 6 July 

98. Johnny Preston – Running Bear (1960)

This number 1 is one strange beast. Breaking an unusually lengthy spell of UK artists at the top (five months) was US rockabilly singer Johnny Preston with an un-PC novelty-teenage death song (these ‘death discs’ were becoming ever more popular) about the forbidden love of two Indians from warring tribes. Sounds interesting, yes?

Preston, of Cajun and German descent, had been born John Preston Courville on 18 August 1939. After entering singing contests in high school, he formed his first band, The Shades, who caught the eye of JP Richardson, better known as The Big Bopper, of Chantilly Lace fame. In 1958 they went into the studio with future country legend George Jones and saxophonist Link Davis to record Richardson’s bizarre song, Running Bear.

Certainly one of the weirder number 1s to date, Running Bear begins with cheers before settling down into comedy stereotypical Indian ‘ocka chunka’ chanting from The Big Bopper and Jones, creating the rhythm of the verses, as Preston tells the tragic tale of the star-crossed lovers. It’s actually a good rhythm they create, but tacky and tasteless to modern ears.

The story is that Running Bear and Little White Dove love each other, but their two tribes hate each other, and as we all know, when two tribes go to war, one is all that you can score. Not only that, there’s a bloody big river separating them. This being the case, I’m not sure of the origins of their love, or how these tribes are managing to do battle, but hey, this isn’t a concept album, you can’t expect the full story I guess. As the verses shift into the chorus, Running Bear changes into your average rock’n’roll track, and the return to the verses afterwards sounds a bit clunky. Before you know it, they’ve decided to meet in the river, have a kiss and drown. And that’s it! I think it’s supposed to come across as romantic, but can’t help seeming a bit stupid. What a way to go.

You couldn’t get away with Running Bear now of course, but it’s not as offensive a number 1 as Guy Mitchell’s She Wears Red Feathers. It’s just outdated, and odd, all in all. The musicians seem to be having a good time, and some of that enthusiasm comes across, at least.

Of course, The Big Bopper died alongside Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens in a plane on 3 February 1959, so he never got to see Running Bear become number 1 in the US and subsequently the UK. Due to Richardson’s death, the song got caught up in legal issues, causing its release to be delayed. Perhaps its posthumous release is the reason it did so well, although Richardson isn’t credited as the artist, so how many people would have been aware of the connection? Perhaps it’s just that cowboys and indians were still very popular, and teenage death songs were about to become big. Or maybe it’s just one of those many unsolved mysteries where it’s impossible to work out how a song made it to the top.

The rest of Johnny Preston’s life is fairly mysterious too. His follow-up single, Cradle of Love nearly repeated Running Bear’s success, hitting the top ten in the US and UK. Another release, the rocking Leave My Kitten Alone, was later covered by the Beatles, and is perhaps the best unreleased track of their early years, with Lennon in fine shouty voice. It eventually surfaced on Anthology 1 in 1995. Preston was entered into the Rockabilly Hall of Fame, and performed on the nostalgia circuit, but eventually retired. He died of heart failure on 4 March, 2011, aged 71.

I can’t imagine why anyone would cover this track, but when I discovered Tom Jones had recorded a funk version in 1973, I had to have a listen. And you know what, it’s actually pretty good! Take a look at this insane clip from a TV special, with crazy dancing and camerawork. Tom should have got his funk on more often.

Written by: JP Richardson

Producer: Bill Hall

Weeks at number 1: 2 (17-30 March)

Births:

Artist Grayson Perry – 24 March

Meanwhile…

26 March: The Grand National was televised for the first time, with Merryman II becoming winner.

28 March: Tragedy struck in Glasgow when a warehouse fire broke out on Cheapside Street. Over a million gallons of whiskey and rum burned out of control for hours. 19 fire-servicemen were killed, making the incident the worst fire services disaster in peacetime, up to that point.