Every 60s Number 1

The Intro 

I’ve done it. 186 blogs in 17 months and I’ve now reviewed all the chart-toppers in that most incredible decade of transformation in pop culture. It’s been fascinating, exciting, dreary and terrifying at times, and sometimes, while listening to songs such as Cinderella Rockefeller, it’s been all those things at once.

The 60s, pre-Beatles, is an era I knew little about, so I suspected this could prove as enlightening as my reviews of the 50s, but I was surprised to learn so much once the Beatles invaded the charts too. Their impact in 1963 and 64 was even bigger than I’d ever imagined, and their move into a more ‘mature’ sound would effect the singles charts of their later years too, but detrimentally.

To commemorate reaching the end, it’s only right that I repeat what I did with Every 50s Number 1, and relisten to them all once more, before deciding on the best and worst of each year, and whittling them down even more to the best and worst of the whole decade.

Despite knowing and loving much of this music so much, I admit to being a bit nervous. How do I choose between some of the greatest bands and songs the world has ever seen? Only one way to find out…

1960

They say that it takes a few years for a decade to get started, and it’s certainly true in the case of the swinging 60s. The music from the dawn of the decade is mostly a hangover from the fag ends of the initial burst of rock’n’roll. There’s a strange short-lived fad at the start of the year for cockney pop by Adam Faith and Anthony Newley (a big influence on early David Bowie). Things don’t really get going until May when the Everly Brothers return to the top with the pioneering drum sound of Cathy’s Clown. This was followed by the first posthumous chart-topper – Eddie Cochrane’s Three Steps to Heaven. Legendary singer-songwriter Roy Orbison makes his number 1 debut with the classic melancholy of Only the Lonely (Know How I Feel). There’s also a great comeback from Elvis Presley with It’s Now or Never. Less impressive were Cliff Richard and the Shadows’ two number 1s together. Weirdest? That can only be Johnny Preston’s bizarre tail of the love between a cowboy and indian, Running Bear.

The Best:

Johnny Kidd & the Pirates – Shakin’ All Over: This could and arguably should have been The Shadows’ surprisingly edgy and menacing Apache, which is a true pre-Beatles classic and hugely influential on pop, rock and even hip-hop. But just pipping it for me was this raunchy, dangerous slice of British rock’n’roll. The band brought theatrics into their live shows and inspired the Who, among others, plus it features number 1 session drumming legend Clem Cattini.

The Worst:

Lonnie Donegan – My Old Man’s a Dustman (Ballad of a Refuse Disposal Officer): How quickly the mighty can fall. In Every 50s Number 1, the ‘King of Skiffle’ Lonnie Donegan’s incendiary performance of Cumberland Gap was my runner-up for number 1 of the decade. Three years after inspiring some of the future decade’s brightest talents, he was performing this music-hall rubbish in a live recording from Doncaster. Terrible, terrible jokes littered throughout. Shame.

1961

A bumper crop and a real mixed bag. The women finally get a look in, featuring a young Petula Clark, Shirley Bassey and Helen Shapiro, but I have to say none of these tracks impressed. Elvis had started his ‘will this do?’ era, but Are You Lonesome Tonight? still hits the spot and (Marie’s the Name) His Latest Flame deserves a mention. Wooden Heart does not. His sometime pianist Floyd Cramer’s On the Rebound is still full of vim and vigour. The Everlys bow out with Temptation, a nice atmospheric number. There’s a lot of oddities about, and they’re mostly good, particularly the gothic melancholic pomp of Johnny Remember Me. Blue Moon is a lot of fun, as is the demented wailing of Frankie Vaughan on Tower of Strength.

The Best:

Danny Williams – Moon River: Not for the last time I found myself torn between a song that pushes the boundaries of pop and a simple, much-loved standard. This time the former, Del Shannon’s still-popular Runaway fell behind the timeless beauty of the South African singer’s take on Moon River, number 1 that Christmas.

The Worst:

Shirley Bassey – Climb Ev’ry Mountain: The veteran Welsh singer is loved for her powerful voice, but it not only leaves me cold most of the time, I find it painful, and this is her at her wailiest (it’s a word, now) over a very boring track. I was very tempted to throw my headphones across the garden when I got to the final note.

1962

The first sighting of what may have been had the Beatles not arrived. Frank Ifield was the year’s biggest star, with his penchant for amusing yodelling over two number 1s, and was still going strong until the rise of Merseybeat. Elvis’s bestsellers range from the dire to classics – even within a single release. Cliff Richard and the Shadows return with strong material, The Young Ones and Wonderful Land respectively. The country-soul of I Can’t Stop Loving You is far from Ray Charles’s best work, but I confess it’s grown on me a little. Nut Rocker is ace, and is fully deserving of its ubiquitous usage in TV and film.

The Best:

Elvis Presley with the Jordanaires – Can’t Help Falling in Love: Like 1961, this was tough. I very nearly picked the quirky space race euphoria of The Tornados’ Telstar. Joe Meek was innovating pop before the Beatles, and despite Telstar being famous, I can’t help but think it’s still a little underrated. However, once more, the timeless pop ballad wins out – am I getting soft in my old age? Perhaps, but how can I deny the brilliance of one of the finest love songs ever written? There are many versions, but none compare to Elvis’s. I’m far from his biggest fan at times but this is pure gold. That the flip side of this is the awful Rock-A-Hula Baby (“Twist” Special) makes it all the more remarkable.

The Worst:

Mike Sarne with Wendy Richard – Come Outside: Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for a bit of Carry On humour, and it’s wrong to expect a song from 1962 to live up to the political correctness of the #metoo era, but Come Outside is woeful. Sarne’s flat vocal irritates, Richard is charmless, and it’s all a bit, well, rapey. The rhythm track isn’t bad, though.

1963

Never has a year in pop seen such a seismic shift. For the first third it’s very similar to the year before with appearances from Cliff (Summer Holiday is still a lovely blast of pop), The Shadows and Frank Ifield, and then Merseybeat happens, and things change forever. It’s nearly always the Beatles, acts performing Lennon-McCartney tunes (Billy J Kramer with the Dakotas) or inferior copycats (Brian Poole and the Tremeloes). Bar one good single from Elvis, (You’re the) Devil in Disguise, US artists don’t get a look in. None of these other groups can match the Beatles, although Gerry and the Pacemakers have some decent material with their hat trick of bestsellers. A lot of Merseybeat is too twee for me to really get into, but some of the greatest pop songs of all time are right around the corner now. Exciting times!

The Best:

The Beatles – She Loves You: The Fab Four shook things up like no act before or since in 1963, and that’s largely due to this, the decade’s biggest-selling 7″. The chorus of She Loves You is lightning in a bottle, pure unbridled joy and ecstacy, and it sparked a thousand imitations. From Me to You is nice enough, and I Want to Hold Your Hand showed new maturity in their songwriting, but this is easily their finest early song. And the lyrics are smart too, moving away from the template of ‘I love you’ and introducing a third party. I’ve always loved She Loves You, but hearing it arrive in the context of this blog increases my respect for it even more.

The Worst:

The Shadows – Dance On!: Cliff Richards’ sometime backing band’s impressive run of number 1s with him and alone came to an end this year, with tracks ranging from the great (Apache) and the good (Wonderful Land) to this, which isn’t awful, it’s just incredibly boring and leaves no mark on me whatsoever. Adding an exclamation mark to the end of the title doesn’t make me any more enthusiastic, either.

1964

An incredible year of number 1s. I envy anyone who lived through this. In fact, listening to them all in one stint, I’d say there’s a very strong argument that this is the high watermark for number 1s. Merseybeat mutates and expands in strange and exciting ways, most notably the momentous folk-rock classic The House of the Rising Sun by the Animals, meaning that the legendary Bob Dylan’s influence was now being felt on these shores. Then the Rolling Stones made their debut (It’s All Over Now), and became so popular, they got a blues cover to the top (Little Red Rooster)! Roy Orbison bows out by getting the girl at last with the brilliant Oh, Pretty Woman. Joe Meek had his third and final chart-topper too, producing the Honeycombs’ insanely underrated Have I the Right?. Women make their belated return, with Sandie Shaw and Cilla Black both topping the charts with two songs by the masterly Burt Bacharach and Hal David – ((There’s) Always Something There to Remind Me and Anyone Who Had a Heart), and the Supremes had their sole UK number 1. As for the Fab Four, well, there’s three classics from them, in particular A Hard Day’s Night. But they don’t win this time.

The Best:

The Kinks – You Really Got Me: Facing incredibly strong competition, Muswell Hill’s finest were my choice, because despite all the other great tunes in 64, it was this primal expression of pure animal lust that pretty much kickstarted rock and heavy metal. Ray Davies may have become one of our wittiest, most quintessentially English songwriters, but the Kinks perhaps never bettered this scorching slab of raunch.

The Worst:

The Bachelors – Diane: A staid, old-fashioned, boring ballad from Ireland’s original boy band. Wouldn’t have sounded out of place 10 years previous (it actually dates back to 1927. That’s right, it’s even worse than Billy J Kramer with the Dakotas’ Little Children, because at least that had a tune.

1965

Tons of pop gold again, but stylistically more varied than the previous year. More strong material from the Kinks and the Stones, and one of the finest epic break-up songs of all time – namely the Righteous Brothers’ You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’. On a similar note, I’ve always loved the Moody Blues’ version of Go Now that preceded it. We’re starting to see the rise of the hippy movement – hair is getting longer, and the lush jangle of Mr Tambourine Man marks another sea change. Cynics may balk at Sonny & Cher’s I Got You Babe, but I think it holds up well, as does the debut of Tom Jones with his anthem It’s Not Unusual. Four songs from the Beatles, all of them – Ticket to Ride, Help! and Day Tripper/We Can Work It Out, among their finest work, in particular Ticket to Ride. The latter, and Day Tripper, are built around some of the finest riffs in existence. And yet, and yet… Ticket to Ride is just trumped by perhaps the greatest riff there has ever been.

The Best:

The Rolling Stones – (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction: It was as close a call as it’s possible to have, but for once in my life, I’m choosing the Stones over the Beatles. Keith Richards’ legendary riff, allegedly created in his sleep and intended for horns, never dates and combined with Mick Jagger’s frustrated world view make for a dream combination. After paying homage to the blues time and again, this saw the birth of Jagger and Richards as songwriters to rival Lennon and McCartney.

The Worst:

Cliff Richard – The Minute You’re Gone: Oh Cliff. Behind the times as early as 1965. And what does he do, to counteract Beatlemania? He abandons the Shadows, perhaps a shrewd move to appear ahead of the curve? Oh, he’s gone and recorded an old-fashioned country song from 1963. Never the genre’s biggest fan, this sounds like a pale imitation of I Can’t Stop Loving You. Ken Dodd’s huge-selling Tears may have also sounded like a relic, but at least the chorus was catchy.

1966

The last of the peak years of the decade, before albums began to overtake singles in importance. In general, a superlative blend of pop and the rise of drugs and psychedelia in music. British pop now striding into a bold, experimental future, and combined with England winning the World Cup, there was an overwhelming sense of optimism and pride in the UK. The Beatles were approaching the peak of their abilities in the studio, and minds must have been blown by their dark ode to the lonely, Eleanor Rigby. As startling a song as it is, I’ve always found it easier to admire than to enjoy. I’d take previous single Paperback Writer over that, and wish their jangly guitar era had lasted a bit longer. 66 got off to a blistering start with the Spencer Davis Group’s still storming Keep on Running, and Nancy Sinatra helped shape modern female pop with the sassy cool of These Boots Are Made for Walkin’… yet Dusty Springfield’s only number 1, You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me is uncharacteristically pleading. By and large, 1966 is another embarrassment of riches, particularly the Rolling Stones’ apocalyptic Paint It, Black, almost their best song ever. The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore, Sunny Afternoon, Reach Out, I’ll Be There… all classics. It would take a very special song to shine above all these.

The Best:

The Beach Boys – Good Vibrations: And a very special song this is. That’s right, Brian Wilson’s ‘pocket symphony’ means that I haven’t picked any number 1s by the Beatles during their peak years, which is probably the biggest surprise I’ve had since starting this blog. What it does prove is that the Fab Four inspired their contemporaries to do better than them. Had they not released their landmark album Revolver, we may never have had the finest three-plus minutes of the Beach Boys’ career, which in turn spurred the Beatles on to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. But anyway… in a year of great tunes and studio innovation, the Beach Boys combined both beautifully, devoting as much time to Good Vibrations as lesser bands would to entire albums. The peak of Brian Wilson’s creativity. The only downside being the burn-out that followed recording their next LP.

The Worst:

Jim Reeves – Distant Drums: Released two years after the US country star’s untimely death, this was a bizarre number 1 to have in 1966, particularly for five weeks. It’s unclear why it was considered single-worthy, as it’s more B-side material, and it’s completely out-of-step with prevailing trends. But the anti-war message may have resonated with Vietnam in mind, and it probably gave succour to old folk baffled by yellow submarines et al. Not awful, like some of the other dire material I’ve mentioned, just out of place.

1967

The tectonic plates of British music and culture shifted once more this year, only not as much as you might imagine in the singles chart. As some of the most famous acts concentrated on complex psychedelic LPs influenced by the rise in LSD, the 7″ chart was largely dominated by light entertainment acts – the most since 1962. Top of the pops was smoother-than-smooth balladeer Engelbert Humperdinck, who enjoyed 11 weeks at number 1 and famously, criminally, prevented Penny Lane/Strawberry Fields Forever with Release Me. Other than the pop brilliance of the Monkees’ I’m a Believer, nothing remotely hippy-like gets a look in until the Summer of Love finally gets underway that June with Procul Harum’s earnest and excellent lysergic standard A Whiter Shade of Pale. Only two other, wholly appropriate chart-toppers followed – the Beatles anthem All You Need Is Love and Scott McKenzie’s dreamy San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair), before Humperdinck brought everything down to earth again. We say hello to the Bee Gees for the first time with the lovely Massachusetts, and goodbye to Nancy and Frank Sinatra, with their ‘incest anthem’ Somethin’ Stupid. All in all, 1967 was a surprising letdown.

The Best:

The Beatles – Hello, Goodbye: This isn’t even the best Beatles single of 1967, but thanks to Humperdinck, I can’t rate Strawberry Fields Forever. So I’m settling for this instead, which may seem controversial when lined up against A Whiter Shade of Pale, but personally I love Hello, Goodbye. I rated it the best Christmas number 1 of the 60s here, and I stand by it. It’s infectious, upbeat and catchy, and the finale is as joyous as the chorus to She Loves You if you’re in the right mood. The B-side, I Am the Walrus, is better, though.

The Worst:

Sandie Shaw – Puppet on a String: The famously barefooted singer hated this song, which was our first ever Eurovision winner – and I don’t blame her, because it’s awful and I’m betting it did her career lasting damage. The lyrics are awful, the tune is demented and it makes me want to pull my teeth out and feed them to sparrows.

1968

Stylistically speaking, 1968 is all over the place when it comes to number 1s. The main trend among the bigger bands this year was to adopt a back-to-basics approach as a reaction to flower power. The Beatles led the way, as usual, but Lady Madonna doesn’t match up to the Rolling Stones’ rocking, witty comeback single Jumpin’ Jack Flash, and Do It Again is a bit of a letdown after Good Vibrations, even if the drumbeat proved pioneering. There’s still room for psychedelia in the charming theatrical demonic pomp of Fire by the Crazy World of Arthur Brown, but then there are some number 1s that are downright odd more than anything, such as The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, and particularly Cinderella Rockefeller, with its deranged yodelling and godawful rickety tune. I loved the Bee Gees’ I’ve Gotta Get a Message to You and Louis Armstrong’s What a Wonderful World, an evergreen classic which gave Satchmo a chart-topper shortly before his death. Cliff finally remembered how to record a catchy tune and whatever you think of Eurovision runner-up Congratulations, you can’t deny its popularity.

The Best:

The Beatles – Hey Jude: In much the same way John Lennon’s Imagine is now considered uncool, it seems to be the done thing to slate McCartney’s lengthy classic, but I’m having none of it. It’s soulful and poignant, written for Julian Lennon when his parents were splitting, and its universal message of the power and importance of love speaks more to me than the simplistic sloganeering of All You Need Is Love. The Beatles may have been already splitting at this point, but there was still plenty of magic in the tank.

The Worst:

Des O’Connor – I Pretend: This could so easily have been the profoundly irritating Cinderella Rockefeller, but that at least had a memorable hook, albeit a very irritating one. No, this is as bland as they get, sang with no soul or meaning whatsoever. He’s supposed to be broken-hearted, but he sounds like he’s having a great time. I like Des, but I get why Morecambe and Wise ripped the piss so much now.

1969

The end of an era in more ways than one as we say farewell to the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. Despite the fact Abbey Road is one of their finest albums, the Beatles’ singles before its release weren’t them at their best, leaving The Ballad of John and Yoko a rather odd way to bow out of the blog. Honky Tonk Women was more appropriate, showing the future for the Stones as the archetypal good-time rock band of the 70s and beyond that they became. For the first time, album sales outpaced singles, as the teens of the mid-60s grew up and moved on to LPs. This left a gap, to be filled by inferior bubblegum pop, resulting in Sugar Sugar by the Archies becoming the year’s biggest seller. Other than that, it’s another mixed bag, like 1968. Some of the highlights include the tranquil Albatross by the original incarnation of Fleetwood Mac and Something in the Air by Thunderclap Newman. Lots of great tracks from overseas acts too, particularly the horny Je t’aime… moi non plus by Jane Birkin and Serge Gainsbourg, plus the apocalyptic boogie of Bad Moon Rising by Creedence Clearwater Revival and ska pioneer Desmond Dekker’s Israelites.

The Best:

Marvin Gaye – I Heard it Through the Grapevine: Originally recorded in 1967, Motown boss Berry Gordy Jr was uncharacteristically blind to the greatness of Gaye’s version of this track. Slowing things down, adding an incredibly cool bass line for the intro, and singing with the kind of feeling that was completely alien to the likes of Engelbert Humperdinck and Des O’Connor, this is soul music at its finest, and peak Motown. To hear just how stunning Gaye is here, check out this clip that’s currently doing the rounds online, which isolates the vocal. Spine-tingling.

The Worst:

Rolf Harris – Two Little Boys: Had I been deciding this before Harris was outed as a paedophile, I’d have said Zager & Evans deserved it, because I, like so many others, had a soft spot for Two Little Boys. Now obviously it just leaves a very sour taste, and it’s a downbeat way to end the decade.

The Best 60s Number 1 Ever is…

The Beatles – She Loves You: It was always going to be the Fab Four, wasn’t it? They’re the greatest group of all time, so it’s a no-brainer. However, I’d be lying if I said She Loves You has always been my favourite Beatles single. I’d probably say Strawberry Fields Forever or Something, but of course neither went to number 1. But it would be wrong to make my choices for best and worst chart-toppers of each decade simply my favourite. I also look at the impact of each song, ine innovation and the influence it had, as well as the catchiness of the chorus. She Loves You easily covers all three bases. It’s modern music’s ‘big bang’ moment, and as I’ve said before about this and other legendary number 1s, it’s listening to them in the context of this blog that really separates the wheat from the chaff, and Every UK Number 1 has truly brought home what a monumental few minutes of pop music the Beatles conjured up here. What alchemy.

But also, what competition, what an often astounding selection of songs I was honoured to listen to and choose from. It could just as easily been You Really Got Me or (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction, but in the end She Loves You got there first and laid the groundwork that allowed all the other classics to be made in the first place.

The Worst 60s Number 1 Ever is…

The Bachelors – Diane: You could argue it’s unfair to single out Diane because it was number 1 in a year full of brilliance. I’d argue that’s exactly why I’ve given it this dubious honour. It spoiled my listening experience and stuck out like a sore thumb! Its dull tweeness would have earned it a slating if it had been released in 1954. 10 years later, it’s unforgivable really. And if they were the first Irish boyband, well, that’s nothing to be proud of, is it?

The 60s were the decade in which pop came of age and became an integral part of the youth movement. From the dreariness of post-rock’n’roll, to Merseybeat, to the British Invasion, to psychedelia, to bubblegum pop and rock, music mutated rapidly, thanks in large to the Beatles, but also the Beach Boys, the Kinks, the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, and more. Reviewing each number 1 in turn was really fascinating, and has increased my knowledge of the decade greatly, and for me the most interesting parts were just how much Merseybeat completely upturned the charts, and how little impact psychedelia actually had in 1967, due to the rise in popularity of albums.

So obviously it’s the 70s next. The decade in which I was born, albeit very late in the decade (1979). Pop changed and changed again here too, many times, and it was an often dark and turbulent decade in the news, so I can’t wait to get stuck in once more.

Blogs on every 60s number 1 are available to view via the Archive section.

253. Des O’Connor – I Pretend (1968)

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And the 1968 award for ‘Really? He got to number 1?’ Shock and Awe Award goes to… Des O’Connor! Yes, the veteran light entertainment star, now 87, spent an incredible 36 weeks in the charts, and one of those weeks at number 1, with the ballad I Pretend.

Desmond Bernard O’Connor was born 12 January 1932 in Stepney, East London, to a Jewish mother and Irish father. During World War Two he was evacuated to Northampton. He was briefly a footballer with Northampton Town, and also worked as a shoe salesman after completing National Service with the Royal Air Force.

In the 1950s he made his first move into showbusiness working as a Butlins redcoat, and began performing at theatres up and down the country, with a bit of singing, bit of comedy, and basically just being all-round nice-guy Des. He even toured with Buddy Holly in 1958. Allegedly, Holly wasn’t impressed with his variety act though.

Des got his big break in 1963 with ATV’s The Des O’Connor Show, which ran for ten years. Established as one of TV’s biggest stars, he released his debut single in 1967. Flower power may have been the cool youth movement of the time, but Des was in good company that year, with smooth easy listening singer Engelbert Humperdinck ending up the year’s biggest sensation. Des’s cover of the 1948 hit Careless Hands rocketed to number six, marking the start of a pop career that would be mocked affectionately throughout the 70s by his friends and colleagues Morecambe and Wise.

O’Connor may have been considered very square by the hippies, but the follow-up I Pretend was one of 1968’s biggest sellers. Its writers, Barry Mason and the late Les Reed, had been responsible for Humperdinck’s second number 1, The Last Waltz, and Des’s song treads familiar ground.

And what turgid, tepid ground it is. I Pretend is a weaker song than The Last Waltz, and is the weakest number 1 of 1968 so far – that’s right, it’s even worse than Cinderella Rockefeller, which at least that had some semblance of a tune, horrid though it was. Des has lost his loved one, and he can’t think why. She might have ran off with another man, but he doesn’t know for sure… you’ve lost interest already, haven’t you? The problem is, Des isn’t bothered either. I know his act is to play up the easygoing, smiling everyman schtick, but a bit of conviction might have helped. A more appropriate title might have been I Pretend to Give a Shit. Problem is, he’s not even trying to pretend.

It’s worth mentioning that production came from Norman Newell. No stranger to number 1 singles, he was the man behind Russ Conway’s Side Saddle and Roulette, Shirley Bassey’s Reach for the Stars/Climb Ev’ry Mountain, and most famously, Ken Dodd’s Tears. None of these singles are any good, however.

But nevermind. I like Des, and so does everyone else. He’s impossible to get angry about, really, bless him. His chart hits continued until 1970, with intriguing titles including 1-2-3 O’Leary and Dick-A-Dum-Dum. When The Des O’Connor Show ended he presented Des O’Connor Entertains from 1974 to 1976, with the focus purely on him as he took his live show to ITV. In 1977 he began hosting Des O’Connor Tonight, which began on BBC Two but moved to ITV, and lasted until 2002 – an incredible run in which he chatted to some of the biggest stars in entertainment.

Des returned to the charts again in 1986 when he and expert whistler Roger Whittaker went to number ten with their version of The Skye Boat Song. Des would be the butt of many jokes once more, except it was alternative comedians now doing the pisstaking, with a little more menace than Morecambe and Wise, but Des carried on regardless. The ribbing even went mainstream once more, as family comedian Russ Abbott starred in a memorable series of adverts for Castella cigars in which Des’s singing was ridiculed. Here’s the most famous one. I’m sure Des showed he could still take a joke by appearing in one, but the memory is very hazy.

Between 1992 and 1998, Des presented ITV game show Take Your Pick, and following the end of Des O’Connor Tonight he moved into weekday daytime TV, co-presenting Today with Des and Mel alongside Melanie Sykes. Popular with old folk and lazy students, they did have a good rapport, but they were axed in 2006. In 2007 O’Connor took over as presenter on long-running Channel 4 quiz Countdown from Des Lynam, but left only a year later.

By then in his 70s, Des’s TV work understandably tailed off, with the odd guest appearances here and there, including an enjoyable appearance on Harry Hill’s Alien Fun Capsule in 2017. He sparked concerns that year when he was pictured looking frail while fighting a stomach bug, but he’s back to looking surprisingly well for such an old chap, and is currently touring the country with Jimmy Tarbuck. Long may he continue, as long as he stays away from the recording studio.

Written by: Barry Mason & Les Reed

Producer: Norman Newell

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

Births:

Actress Olivia Williams – 26 July 

230. Engelbert Humperdinck – Release Me (1967)

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Spring, 1967 saw one man sitting atop the charts. For seven weeks Engelbert Humperdinck was number 1 with Release Me. It was the year’s biggest seller, and famously, was the first song to prevent the Beatles from reaching number 1 since 1963. But before I go into that, what else was happening in the UK over those six weeks?

On 4 March the first North Sea gas was pumped ashore at Easington, East Riding. That same day, Queens Park Rangers became the first Third Division side to win the League Cup when they beat West Bromwich Albion 3-2 at Wembley Stadium. Supertanker SS Torrey Canyon ran aground between Land’s End and the Scilly Isles, creating the biggest oil spill in the world at the time, and it remains the biggest in UK history. At the Astoria Theatre in Finsbury Park, London on 31 March, guitar legend Jimi Hendrix set fire to his instrument for the first time. He was taken to hospital afterwards for burns to his hands. As he had superhuman axeman powers, it didn’t put him off doing it time and time again.

Norwell Roberts made history on 3 April, becoming the first black officer for the Metropolitan Police Service. Five days later the Grand National was won by 100-1 outsider Foinavon, and Sandie Shaw became the first singer to have an English-language entry win the Eurovision Song Contest, with Puppet on a String. It would soon become her third and final number 1. And as Humperdinck’s reign finally began to end, Tom Stoppard’s play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead received it’s premier at the Old Vic in London.

So, Release Me. This shouldn’t have come as a surprise to me after blogging so many hits of the time, but it wasn’t Humperdinck’s song originally. It was first written in 1949 by country music singer-songwriters Eddie Harris and Robert Yount, with James Pebworth also receiving a confusing third of the royalties. Confusing, because over the years he used several different pseudonyms that often cropped up on various versions, sometimes even two at once. Harris recorded the first version, but it was Ray Price who made it a hit for the first time in 1954. Then along came Humperdinck. Who was this bizarrely named singer?

It won’t come as a surprise to find out it’s not his real name. He was born Arnold George Dorsey in May 1936. One of ten children, he spent his first decade living in Madras, British India (now Chennai), before the Dorseys moved to the less exotic Leicester. Interested in music from a young age, he learnt the saxophone and would play it in nightclubs, and apparently didn’t attempt to sing live until he was 17, when his friends persuaded him to enter a pub contest. His impression of Jerry Lee Lewis earned him the name Gerry Dorsey, which he used for nearly a decade.

Dorsey’s career was interrupted by National Service, and he made his first recordings after being discharged with Decca Records in 1958. He failed to make his mark.

That all changed in 1965 when he teamed up with his old roommate Gordon Mills. Mills was Tom Jones’s manager, and was the one who came up with his name change. He reckoned he could do the same for Dorsey, and suggested ‘Engelbert Humperdinck’. Humperdinck was a German composer in the 19th century, and among his works was Hansel and Gretel. Quite why Mills thought this would be a reasonable name is unknown to me. At least ‘Tom Jones’ had been in the public eye at the time, having been the name of a big film.

Humperdinck signed a new contract with Decca under his new stage name, and things picked up when he started to do well in Europe, entering the Knokke song contest and having a hit in Belgium with Dommage, Dommage. Around this time he visited German songwriter Bert Kaempfert, and became keen on Strangers in the Night. He recorded it and wanted it released as a single, but Frank Sinatra got there first.

Fortune finally smiled on Humperdinck when Dickie Valentine fell ill and had to miss an appearance on Sunday Night at the London Palladium. He sang Release Me, and had rave reviews. Soon, his recording was at the top of the charts, and it held firm.

I thought that overfamiliarity with Release Me would make listening to it a waste of time, but there were a couple of surprises. For one, it was a lot slower than I remembered, but I think my brain had somehow replaced it with the version used on BBC Two Nineties comedy The Fast Show – a version which at least had some flair. Humperdinck’s version isn’t half dreary to begin with. Charles Blackwell’s production makes it all sound a little too slick, and doesn’t really give off the impression that Humperdinck is dying to move on from his partner (hard to believe it was produced by the man behind Come Outside). But I have to admit I was impressed with his singing in the latter half. He has a great voice, you have to give him that, and he does sound pretty anguished during that final run through the chorus. Apparently Humperdinck didn’t like being referred to as a crooner, because he felt his range was better than that, and I wouldn’t argue with him.

I can’t dislike Release Me as much as many Beatles fans do. Obviously it didn’t deserve to keep Penny Lane/Strawberry Fields Forever from number 1, but it’s by far the worst number 1 I’ve heard, and there’s far worse to come. I like the lyrics too. Although the track is nearly 20 years old by this point, I can’t imagine it was easy to come by songs that hinted at separation and divorce back then. You’re only hearing one side of the argument, true, but you can’t help feeling some degree of empathy.

But, like Tears and Distant Drums in the two years previous, just why did this become so huge? And why does the list of 1967 number 1s feature lots of lengthy stints at the top, and from safer material than the previous few years? I think, perhaps, that things got a little too weird for many record buyers, and particularly the older ones. Whereas many of the number 1s of 1965 and 1966 still had commercial appeal, even if they were breaking new ground too. And so there was a return to the safe, slick world of easy listening and light-entertainment-style pop. Humperdinck was also a heart-throb, unlike Ken Dodd and Jim Reeves, so that will have helped him somewhat as well.

It wasn’t just Release Me that had a lasting impact – even the B-side left its mark. Ten Guitars was so popular in New Zealand, it’s considered the unofficial national anthem.

And so, as some of the greatest rock bands of all time prepared to release albums that would go down in history as 20th-century classics, an amusingly-named warbler who had struggled for years was the biggest singer in the UK with an easy listening cover of an old country song. And he had another chart-topper before the year was out, too.

Written by: Eddie Miller, James Pebworth & Robert Yount

Producer: Charles Blackwell

Weeks at number 1: 6 (2 March-12 April) *BEST-SELLING SINGLE OF THE YEAR*

Births:

Director Sam Taylor-Johnson – 4 March
Scottish actor John Barrowman – 11 March
Race walker Lisa Langford – 15 March
Lush singer Miki Berenyi – 18 March
Director Kwame Kwei-Armah – 24 March
Presenter Helen Chamberlain – 2 April

Deaths:

Author John Haden Bradley – 6 March 

 

224. Jim Reeves – Distant Drums (1966)

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At 9.15am on 21 October in the mining village of Aberfan in Glamorgan, South Wales, pupils at Pantglas Junior School were just beginning their lessons. A large colliery spoil tip, high up on a mountain slope behind the village, suddenly turned into a slurry due to a period of heavy rain beforehand. Within five minutes, the slurry had engulfed the school, along with nearby houses and a farm. This tragic event resulted in the horrific deaths of 116 children and 28 adults. The TV footage of the incident makes for surreal, grim viewing.

That autumn had seen the singles chart ruled for 5 weeks by a man who had died two years previous. American country singer-songwriter Jim Reeves ruled over the charts with Distant Drums in the same surprising way that Ken Dodd had a year previous with Tears. Amid all the amazing, pioneering music coming thick and fast, the charts were suddenly owned by the old folk once more.

‘Gentleman Jim’ had been born in Galloway, Texas in August 1923. Known as Travis during his childhood, he loved to play baseball and spent three years in minor leagues before severing his sciatic nerve. As a sufferer of sciatica myself, I can only imagine this must have been really bloody painful.

Reeves avoided World War Two when he failed his physical exam in 1943, and so he began working as a radio announcer. A fan of popular singers like Frank Sinatra, Jimmie Rodgers and Bing Crosby, he would sometimes sing live in-between songs, and began to see a career in it.

By the early 1950s Reeves was doing well in the US charts. Bimbo reached number 1 in the country chart in 1954. His first and only album release for Abbott Records, Jim Reeves Sings, came in November 1955. By that point he had signed a ten-year deal with RCA Victor with Steve Sholes. That same year, Sholes signed Elvis Presley.

Like every other country and western performer of the era, Reeves’ earliest recordings had him adopting a loud, rather cliched Texan style, but over time he developed his trademark style, a smooth, warm and gentle baritone, his lips nearly touching the mic as he crooned. RCA executives thought this was a bad idea, but Reeves was lucky to have producer Chet Atkins on his side. The first example of this new approach, Four Walls, was a commercial hit for Reeves in 1957. Soon, other artists were adopting the same approach, and this gentle approach, together with lush arrangements, became known as the Nashville Sound.

As the 60s began Reeves scored big in the pop and country charts with He’ll Have to Go. From here on in his stature grew enormously worldwide, eclipsing his fame in the US, even. He was more popular than label mate Elvis in South Africa. Among his hits in the UK in 1963 was Welcome to My World, used in recent years in adverts for Thomson Holidays.

In an eerie foreshadowing of what was to come, the singer’s final session for RCA resulted in three songs – Make the World Go Away, Missing You and Is It Really Over? With tape left over, they cut one more track – I Can’t Stop Loving You, which had been a number 1 for Ray Charles in 1962.

On 31 July Reeves and his manager Dean Manuel (also the pianist in Reeves’ backing group, the Blue Boys) were flying over Brentwood, Tennessee when they encountered a violent thunderstorm. Two days later, after intense searching by friends including Marty Robbins, the wreckage was found, and by the afternoon, Gentleman Jim’s death was announced publicly.

Material by Reeves continued to be released after his untimely death, aged 40. Distant Drums was a song by country singer and dancer Cindy Walker. It had been recorded by Roy Orbison in 1963, but it is Reeves’ version that is remembered best.

So just how did Distant Drums not only make it to number 1, but hold court for five weeks? It’s really hard to say. It seems RCA had chosen to release it due to creeping anti-war sentiment over the situation in Vietnam, but I’m not sure you could describe it as an explicit protest song. Even if it was, surely there were more commercial examples of such a thing out there? The fact he was two years dead already means it wasn’t due to the strength of feeling after he was gone, either.

To be fair to Reeves, he never intended it as a single – it was merely meant as a demo, and had been tarted up with an orchestral backing. But lord, is it dull. I’m no country fan anyway, but it’s a B-side or album track at best. I’ve read that perhaps so many young bands were jockeying for the top spot at the time, Reeves’ single split the vote, but who knows? It’s another one of those chart mysteries.

On the final day of Distant Drums‘ number 1 reign, former chart-topper Alma Cogan, whose Dreamboat was number 1 in 1955, died of ovarian cancer aged only 34.

Written by: Cindy Walker

Producer: Chet Atkins

Weeks at number 1: 5 (22 September-26 October)

Births:

Prime Minister David Cameron – 9 October 
Footballer Tony Adams – 10 October

Deaths:

Singer Alma Cogan – 26 October 

205. The Rolling Stones – Get Off of My Cloud (1965)

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In the autumn of 1965 the situation in Rhodesia degenerated so much that martial law was announced on 5 November. The UN General Assembly accepted British intent to use force if neccessary. Six days later, Ian Smith’s white majority regime unilaterally declared independence, and so on 20 November the UN Security Council recommended that all states should cease trading with Rhodesia.

Meanwhile in the pop world, Ken Dodd’s Tears was finally usurped after five weeks at the top, with a song that couldn’t be more different. The Rolling Stones were at number 1 for the third time that year with the racucous Get Off of My Cloud.

Adored by young people and critics and feared by the older generation, the Stones were now on a par with the Beatles, but rather than make the move into establishment acceptance, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards decided to write a sequel to their previous number 1, (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction. The alienation felt by Jagger was the theme once more, and it seems his band’s superstardom hadn’t improved the singer’s general mood. Richards based the tune on the Kingsmen’s classic Louie Louie and later expressed regret that Get Off of My Cloud hadn’t been slowed down. He also said it was one of Andrew Loog Oldham’s worst productions.

I’ve said before that I think a lot of early Stones recordings would have benefitted from cleaner production, but I’m not sure I agree with Richards in this instance. I think Oldham’s work around the time of Aftermath (1966) suits the darker, early-psychedelic material the Stones were coming out with, particuarly on tracks like this and Have You Seen Your Mother Baby, Standing in the Shadow? Although it would be nice to actually be able to work out what Jagger is shouting about. And I realise by typing that sentence I sound like the sort of person who would have been furious in 1965 that the Rolling Stones had knocked Ken Dodd from number 1…

Jagger is living high up on the 99th floor of an apartment block, and the first verse follows right on from (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction, with the singer complaining about commercialism through advertising. However, he wrongfoots everyone by spending the next verse complaining about the noise coming from his neighbours until the early hours. Jagger isn’t on anybody’s side here other than his own. And what’s more, he’s so bloody rich, he can afford to go for some peace and quiet and end up with loads of parking tickets. Couldn’t give a shit as long as he’s left alone. And so we have the most mean-spirited chart-topper so far, and you’ve got to admire the Rolling Stones for their chutzpah. Their stand-offishness only made them more admired.

Also in the news that November… The Murder (Abolition of Death Penalty) Act suspended capital punishment for murder in England, Scotland and Wales, for five years in the first instance, replacing it with a mandatory sentence of life imprisonment. And on 13 November the word ‘fuck’ was believed to have been spoken on British television for the first time by theatre critich Kenneth Tynan. He was taking part in a live debate on censorship on BBC Two satirical series BBC-3. No recording exists of the occurence, but despite general opinion that it was Tynan, three other moments could also be considered the first: a drunken Brendan Brehan on Panorama in 1956 (barely intelligible muttering), a man who painted railings describing his job as ‘fucking boring’ on Ulster TV’s magazine Roundabout in 1959, or actress Miriam Margolyes, who claims to have said it in frustration while taking part in ITV’s University Challenge in 1963. But really, who gives a fuck?

Written by: Mick Jagger & Keith Richards

Producer: Andrew Loog Oldham

Weeks at number 1: 3 (4-24 November)

Births:

Actor Shaun Williamson – 4 November
Comedian Sean Hughes – 10 November Sean Hughes, comedian (died 2017)
Northern Irish racecar driver Eddie Irvine – 10 November
Presenter Eddie Mair – 12 November

Deaths:

Academic Ifor Williams – 4 November
Politician George Henry Hall – 8 November

204. Ken Dodd – Tears (1965)

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7 October 1965. A 27-year-old stock clerk named Ian Brady was charged with the murder of 17-year-old apprentice electrician Edward Evans the night before. Myra Hindley’s brother-in-law David Smith had witnessed Brady striking Evans with the flat of an axe and then strangling him with electrical cord. Smith had been friends with Brady for a while, but when he told his wife Maureen Hindley what he had seen, she told him to ring the police. The arrest led British Transport Police to discover suitcases belonging to Brady at Manchester Central railway station. Inside one of them were incriminating, disturbing photos of a young girl, as well as a tape of her voice pleading for help. Myra Hindley was arrested on 11 October and both she and Brady were charged with Evans’ murder. Police searches led them to believe that the duo were responsible for the murders of several children reported missing in the Manchester area over the last few years, and on 16 October, the body of ten-year-old Lesley Ann Downey was found on Saddleworth Moor.

As news reports pieced together the horrific story of the Moors Murderers, Brady and Hindley were charged with Downey’s murder on 21 October. Three days later police found the decomposed body of 12-year-old John Kilbride, who had been missing since November 1963. Brady and Hindley were charged in court with the murders of Evans, Downey and Kilbride on 29 October.

As this terrible story unfolded that October, an unlikely chart star was at number 1. Comedian Ken Dodd’s Tears’ reign of the singles chart lasted a mind-boggling five weeks. Not only that, it was the best-selling single of 1965 – a year featuring some of the greatest number 1s there has ever been. How did this happen?

Kenneth Arthur Dodd was born 8 November 1927 in Knotty Ash, Liverpool. He sang in the local church choir, and at 14 he left school to work for his father as a coal merchant. Despite this, he was in love with the idea of being an entertainer, and his father bought him a ventriloquist’s dummy, which he named Charlie Brown. Dodd began his showbiz career performing at the local orphanage. His trademark bucked teeth came about as a result of Dodd being dared by his friends to ride his bike with his eyes closed.

His big break came in 1954 when he turned professional at the age of 26. He performed as Professor Yaffle Chucklebutty, Operatic Tenor and Sausage Knotter at the Nottingham Empire. It’s fair to say his eccentric humour was already well in place by this point. He gained top billing for the first time in Blackpool in 1958. With his unusual appearance, quickfire one-liners, and lengthy performances, he became a big star. Over the years his tales of the Diddy Men, jam butty mines and Knotty Ash (where he lived all his life) made him a true family entertainer. His shows became so long he even entered the Guinness Book of Records for the world’s longest joke-telling session – 1,500 jokes in three-and-a-half hours.

His sets would also feature songs. Dodd was no great shakes as a singer, but he wasn’t bad either, and off the back of his fame he started releasing singles, his first being Love is Like a Violin in 1960. It went to number eight, but for the next few years his records only made it into the top 30, including Happiness, which became his signature song. Which makes it unlikely that anyone including Dodd would have expected Tears to do as well it did. Originally called Tears for Souvenirs, the words were by Frank Capano and music by Frank Uhr. Recorded by Rudy Vallee in 1929, it was based on Delilah’s aria Mon cœur s’ouvre à ta voix (Softly awakes my heart) from Act II of Camille Saint-Saëns’s opera 1877 opera Samson and Delilah.

Dodd’s performance on Tears, like most of his singles, is played straight, and yes, he sings it well enough, although it’s a very mannered performance, with every line pronounced to perfection. But it’s not even Dodd’s best single – Happiness is more memorable (it’s the only other one I’ve heard and I can’t say I’m in a hurry to hear any others). It’s a throwback to the pop singles of the early-to-mid-1950s. As the crimes of the Moors Murderers came to light, I’d imagine that the British public, whether subconsciously or not, chose to a very safe song to listen to that was reminiscent of more innocent times. This can’t be proved though, and it still doesn’t explain exactly how big this song was. In addition to being the best seller of 1965, Tears was the third biggest single of the 60s and the only one in the top five that wasn’t by fellow scousers, the Beatles. In 2017 it was revealed as the 39th biggest single of all time. Incredible statistics for such a random, average track. Basically, I don’t know why it was so popular. It’s yet another example of the weird and wonderful world of the UK singles chart. My only prior knowledge of it came from a snippet being sang in the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band’s I’m Bored in 1967.

Dodd’s music career peaked in the mid-60s, with further top ten entries for The River (Le Colline Sono In Fioro) and Promises. Occasionally he branched out into straight acting, in theatre (a production of Twelfth Night in 1971), TV (Doctor Who in 1987) and cinema (Kenneth Branagh’s version of Hamlet in 1996). I remember finding Dodd funny as a child and wondering what the tax evasion case of 1989 was all about. I didn’t like the idea of such an odd man as Dodd behind bars, but he was acquitted and the media spotlight didn’t hurt his career.

Dodd was a national treasure and one of the last great British eccentrics. Over the years he recieved an OBE, was knighted and received award after award. Behind the laughter, like with so many comics, there was sadness. Dodd was in a relationship with Anita Boutin from 1955 until she died of a brain tumour in 1977. A year later he fell in love with Anne Jones, and they married on 9 March 2018, two days before he died. They had wanted children but were unable, and the details of his tax evasion had included failed rounds of IVF. When they wed, Dodd had just been released from hopsital, where he had been for six weeks due to a chest infection.

Ken Dodd died in his childhood home in Knotty Ash on 11 March this year, aged 90. The showbiz world mourned the loss of a beloved figure.

Although the Moors Murders were the biggest story in the autumn of 1965, the news wasn’t all so horrific. On 30 September the first episode of ATV’s much-loved puppet series Thunderbirds aired on ITV, and 18 October saw The Magic Roundabout premiered on BBC One. On 8 October the iconic Post Office Tower opened in Londond, remaining the capital’s tallest building until 1980.

The drama in Rhodesia continued, with African countries demanding on 22 October that the UK use force to prevent it from declaring unilateral independence. Two days later, Prime Minister Harold Wilson and Secretary of State for Commonwealth Relations Arthur Bottomley travelled there to negotiate with their Prime Minster Ian Smith.

Written by: Billy Uhr & Frank Capano

Producer: Norman Newell

Weeks at number 1: 5 (30 September-3 November) *BEST-SELLING SINGLE OF THE YEAR*

Births:

Comedian Steve Coogan – 14 October
Actor Stephen Tompkinson – 15 October
Disc jockey Steve Lamacq – 16 October
Bush singer Gavin Rossdale – 30 October