189. Tom Jones – It’s Not Unusual (1965)

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It’s not unusual to have a strong opinion on Sir Tom Jones. Most people either love him or hate him. As for me, well, it depends on my mood. I recall going to see him while nursing a diabolical hangover at Glastonbury and his over-the-top bellowing made me want to put my head under the cider bus and plead for someone to run me over and put me out of my misery. But at the right time, and on the right song, Jones is a lot of fun, and there’s perhaps no better example of this then on his first number 1, It’s Not Unusual.

Before he was a sir, and before he was Tom Jones, he was Thomas John Woodward. He was born in 1940 in Pontypridd, Glamorgan, South Wales. He loved to sing from a very young age, and would perform at family events and in the school choir. Woodward’s world was turned upside down when he was diagnosed with tuberculosis at the age of 12. He spent two years recovering in bed, with little to do other than listen to music and draw. He loved US soul and R’n’B singers including Little Richard and Jackie Wilson plus rock’n’roll stars like Elvis Presley. Despite his reputation as a ladies’ man, he married his pregnant girlfriend Linda Trenchard when they were still in high school in 1957, and they stayed together until her death in 2016. To support his new family he began work in a glove factory, and later took on construction jobs.

In 1963 he was the singer in beat group Tommy Scott and the Senators and gathered somewhat of a following in South Wales. The following year they recorded tracks with eccentric producer Joe Meek (the genius behind Johnny Remember Me (1961), Telstar (1962) and Have I the Right? (1964), but had little luck. However, one night while performing, he was spotted by Gordon Mills. Mills had once been in the Viscounts, who had a minor hit with their version of Barry Mann’s Who Put the Bomp (in the Bomp Bomp Bomp) (see my blog on You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’). Mills was from South Wales but was now aiming to be a pop manager in London. He took the singer under his wing and renamed him ‘Tom Jones’ as an attempt to cash in on the 1963 Academy Award-winning movie of the same name.

Mills helped Jones bag a recording contract with Decca, but his first single in 1964, Chills and Fever, didn’t do great. Soon after he recorded a demo of It’s Not Unusual, a new track by Mills and Les Reed. Reed had been in the John Barry Seven and played piano on Adam Faith’s two number 1s, What Do You Want? (1959) and Poor Me (1960). Sandie Shaw was supposed to record it as a follow-up to her chart-topper (There’s) Always Something There to Remind Me (1964), but was so impressed by Jones’s delivery, she suggested he make it his second single. The BBC weren’t so keen, and despite the fact society was becoming more liberal, they could still be far too stuffy, and they reckoned Jones was too sexy, so it didn’t get much airplay. Luckily for the singer, pirate radio stations were growing in popularity, and Radio Caroline loved it.

Reed arranged the recording session for It’s Not Unusual, and there were some notable names involved. Possibly. There have long been rumours that among the session musicians was Jimmy Page (this isn’t the first time this has been mentioned on this site). Reed however insists the only guitarist was Joe Moretti, who contributed to Johnny Kidd & the Pirates’ classic Shakin’ All Over in 1960. Several people claim to have been the drummer, but the most likely person is Andy White, who famously played on the version of Love Me Do that made it onto the Beatles debut LP, Please Please Me. Also on the session, due to the unavailability of Jones’s usual keyboard player, was Reginald Dwight. Did Dwight take notes on how to be a flamboyant showman, a few years before he became Elton John?

Shaw was so right about this song, you can’t really imagine anyone other than Jones pulling it off. Despite me saying I have to be in the right mood for Tom Jones, hearing It’s Not Unusual immediately puts me in that mood. Jones’s complete lack of subtlety, raw power and pomposity works a treat and the band make heartbreak a joyous sound. You could call it his signature song, and there’s no wonder it became the theme tune to his musical variety series This Is Tom Jones later that decade. My memory of that Glastonbury experience in 2009 is very foggy, but a quick search of his setlist reveals he ended his initial set with It’s Not Unusual. I’d put money on me smiling at that point.

Written by: Les Reed & Gordon Mills

Producer: Peter Sullivan

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

Births:

TV presenter Lawrence Llewelyn-Bowen – 11 March 
Butterfly swimer Caroline Foot – 14 March
Boxer Michael Watson – 15 March 

176. The Honeycombs – Have I the Right? (1964)

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Maverick pioneering producer Joe Meek was responsible for three excellent number 1s over the first half of the 1960s – the gothic melodrama of Johnny Remember Me by John Leyton in 1961 and the futuristic ecstasy of Telstar by the Tornados in 1962. I’d always assumed that his death had happened before the onset of Beatlemania (a band he’d turned down), but here we are in 1964 with his final chart-topper, the primitive punch of Have I the Right? by the Honeycombs.

Since the onset of Merseybeat, Meek continued to do well, producing further hits for the Tornados, Mike Berry and Heinz throughout 1963. In early 1964 he was scheduled to have a new beat group in for audition known as the Sheratons. They were formed in November 1963 by hairdresser Martin Murray, who played rhythm guitar. Years before the White Stripes and even the Velvet Underground, they stood out as their drummer was Honey Lantree, who had been Murray’s salon assistant. Her brother John took up the bass, and his friends Dennis D’Ell and Alan Ward became the singer and lead guitarist respectively. In the audience for one of their gigs in February were the rookie songwriting duo Ken Howard and Alan Blaikley. Meek was impressed with Have I the Right? and as usual, he got the band into his apartment at 304 Holloway Road, Islington to record it as a single.

I thought Have I the Right? was going to be a completely new song for me, but I did recognise the chorus. It doesn’t feature the song title, and that threw me. What also threw me was just how brilliant it sounds in the context of any number 1s I’d heard up to this point. Yet again Meek astounded me, and this time it was due to the lo-fi recording. This is one of the most basic number 1s to date, and is almost punk-like in its simplicity and raw energy. D’Ell is a great singer, I particularly love that guttural growl as he reaches the chorus for the last time. And what a chorus! That amazing pounding beat you hear was achieved by not only Lantree’s drumming, but by band members stamping on the wooden stairs to Meek’s studio. The genius fixed five microphones to his banisters with bicycle clips, and someone beat a tambourine directly into a mic. What a brilliantly simple but effective recording.

The single was released in June by Pye Records. The label renamed the Sheratons as the Honeycombs, a pretty witty pun on their drummer’s nickname and previous occupation. It took a while to climb the charts, but eventually overtook Manfred Mann’s Do Wah Diddy Diddy and spent a fortnight at number 1 before being overtaken by the similarly groundbreaking You Really Got Me by the Kinks. Meek had done it again, but it was downhill all the way now.

Howard and Blaikley became managers of the Honeycombs and wrote their next two singles, but they couldn’t repeat their success. Their fourth single, Something Better Beginning, was by Ray Davies of the Kinks, but this too was a relative failure. By November Murray had left the group to be replaced by Peter Pye. Lantree sang on some later material, and when they performed the tracks live she was replaced on drums by Viv Prince from the Pretty Things. In April 1966 D’Ell, Ward and Pye all left the group, and a new version of the Honeycombs were formed, but they broke up in 1967. The 90s saw several different versions of the group touring the cabaret circuit. D’Ell succumbed to cancer in 2005, aged 62.

Howard and Blaikley would go on to become an acclaimed songwriting team, with a further number 1 under their belts, namely The Legend of Xanadu by Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick and Tich in 1968.

Of course, Meek’s life ended in tragedy. The mental issues that had always troubled him worsened, and the legal battle for Telstar‘s royalties left him out of pocket. His preoccupation with the spirit world deepened. A closet homosexual, he was implicated by association in an awful crime. In January 1967 the remains of a 17-year-old Bernard Oliver were found in two suitcases. Meek became implicated in ‘the Suitcase Murder’. Rumours were he had either recorded for him or was a tape-stacker in Meek’s studio. The crime was never solved, and although apparently Meek was innocent, the fear of being questioned (police had stated they would interview every known homosexual in London) tipped him over the edge. On 2 February he burst into a friend’s house dressed entirely in black and claimed he was possessed. The following day was the 18th anniversary of Buddy Holly’s death, an incident that Meek was obsessed with. During an argument with his landlady, Meek became enraged, grabbed the shotgun he had confiscated from Tornados bassist Heinz Burt, and murdered her. He then turned the gun on himself. Three weeks later, the court ruled in favour of Joe Meek receiving the royalties to his biggest hit Telstar. He would have been financially saved.

UPDATE (1/1/19): Honey Lantree, real name Anne Coxall, died on 23 December 2018. She was 75.

Written by: Ken Howard & Alan Blaikley

Producer: Joe Meek

Weeks at number 1: 2 (27 August-9 September)

141. The Tornados – Telstar (1962)

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It must have sounded to many like their record players or radios were malfunctioning at first. Telstar slowly fades in like no number 1 had ever done, to the sound of white noise, conjuring up images of the satellite the song was named after, before the clavioline begins and the tune gallops into life. Joe Meek’s imaginative masterpiece was a futuristic, optimistic anthem promising (like popular culture did so much at the time) a bright space-age future. But for its creator, it ultimately resulted in his life spiralling out of control, leading to murder and suicide.

Meek was obsessed with technology, so the launch of the Telstar communications satellite was a natural source of inspiration for him. He had become intrigued by the sound of the clavioline on the Dave Cortez hit The Happy Organ, and must have felt the instrument would help his new instrumental sound suitably space age. He gave the song to his group the Tornados, who formed in 1960, before providing backing for rock’n’roller Billy Fury. Like the Shadows with Cliff Richard, they also recorded instrumentals under their own name. In 1962 the group consisted of Clem Cattini on drums, who had already recorded several number 1s and would go on to perform more than anyone else, George Bellamy on rhythm guitar (father of Muse frontman Matt Bellamy, and very possibly an influence on that band), bassist Heinz Burt, lead guitarist Alan Caddy and Norman Hale on keyboards.  Meek produced Telstar in his usual (or unusual) way, recording the bulk of the track with the band in his flat. After laying down the main instruments, his associate Geoff Goddard, who had written Meek’s previous number 1, Johnny Remember Me added the clavioline that made the tune so unique, Meek was then in his element, adding the effects that were his signature. That sound of a spacecraft taking off at the beginning is in fact his toilet flushing, in reverse. Meek was achieving backwards effects four years before George Martin and the Beatles were experimenting along similar lines. Deciding that this new song needed something to help bring it to a climax, he hit upon the idea of adding a wordless vocal to mirror the clavioline, which Goddard also provided. The Tornados thought this was a bad idea, and you can’t blame them, as such a technique wasn’t well known at the time. Who’d heard of an instrumental with singing on it? At some point, the group also filmed a primitive video, with film clips of astronauts interspersed with the Tornados playing along. So much for Bohemian Rhapsody being the first music video.

Ever since Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space in 1961, the US became obsessed with the space age, and sure enough the UK followed suit. Telstar tapped into this feeling like no other song had even attempted at that point. Listening to this joyous sound, record buyers must have felt the future was now, and that it would only be a matter of time before they or their children would be living on the moon. 56 years later, it’s truly remarkable that such a song could come from the troubled mind of a schizophrenic in his independent home studio. The charts had come a long way since Al Martino’s Here in My Heart, nearly ten years previous.

Telstar was one of the biggest-selling singles of the year and became the first US number 1 to come from a UK group. Capitalising on its success, Meek produced a new version, with lyrics, entitled Magic Star, sung by Kenny Hollywood, but the lyrics took away some of the song’s mystery. Sadly, the original single was caught up in a legal battle when French composer Jean Ledrut accused Meek of plagiarising La Marche d’Austerlitz, a part of a score he had composed for the 1960 film Auschwitz. Meek claimed to have never seen the film (it hadn’t been released in the UK at this point), but the lawsuit prevented him from receiving any royalties for his biggest hit. Come 1967, this would have fatal repercussions.

In 1963, with Beatlemania on the rise (Meek had turned down the chance to work with the Fab Four), instrumental groups were losing ground, and the Tornados began to fall apart. This was in part due to Meek’s growing obsession with the bassist Heinz, who he had convinced he could make a solo star. Unfortunately, Heinz couldn’t sing, and the vocals on his solo debut were over-dubbed. Audiences weren’t keen, and poor Heinz would be attacked on stage, with beans thrown over him (Heinz Baked Beans, y’see). Eventually Heinz and Meek fell out, with Heinz leaving behind a shotgun… In 1965 Clem Cattini left the Tornados to go on to a safer and hugely successful career as a session drummer, and the band were left with no original members. In 66, the band made history again, releasing the first openly gay song, Do You Come Here Often? as a B-side The organ-led instrumental featured a casual conversation between two seemingly-homosexual men. The Tornados would do what countless 60s bands went on to do, namely reforming in a million different line-ups, and recorded various versions of Telstar. The original will always be the best. It was also one of Margaret Thatcher’s favourite songs, but don’t let that put you off.

The day after Telstar reached number 1, the public were served notice that soon the worlds of music and cinema would be changed dramatically, heralding the start of the 60s, two years after they’d actually began. 5 October saw the release of the first James Bomd film, Dr No, starring Sean Connery, and the Beatles first single in their own right, Love Me Do, was also released.

Written & produced by: Joe Meek

Weeks at number 1: 5 (4 October-7 November)

Births:

Presenter Caron Keating – 5 October 
Actress Nicola Bryant – 11 October 
Artist Naive John – 18 October 
Comedian Boothby Graffoe – 20 October – t
Presenter Nick Hancock – 25 October 
Actor Cary Elwes – 26 October

Deaths:

Activist Hugh Franklin – 21 October
Journalist Percy Cudlipp – 5 November 

139. Frank Ifield – I Remember You (1962)

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The brightest new star in 1962 was English-born Australian easy listening and country singer Frank Ifield. He was famous for incorporating yodelling into his songs, and was the last pre-Beatles chart sensation, scoring four number 1s in 62 and 63, and becoming the first UK-based performer to score three number 1s in a row. His first chart-topper, I Remember You, was also 62’s biggest-selling single, in a year of huge-sellers. By the middle of the decade he had already been largely forgotten.

Ifield was born in 1937 in Coundon, Warwickshire. His parents were Australian, and his father had created the Ifield pump, a device used in fuel systems for jet aircraft. In the mid-1940s they emigrated to rural Dural (now there’s a rhyme), near Sydney. Young Frank became a fan of country music, in particular Hank Snow, who was nicknamed the Yodelling Ranger. In his teens he decided to drop out of school to concentrate on a full-time singing career, and he quickly became popular through radio appearances. He signed to EMI Australia in 1953 and had a few hits, and then progressed to presenting his own television show, Campfire Favourites. With Australia sort-of conquered, he returned to the UK in 1959, and hit the top 30 the following year with Lucky Star (not the Madonna song).

Ifield released more singles, but Lucky Star was beginning to look like a one-off success, until I Remember You became massive. It dated back to 1941, with music by victor Shertzinger and lyrics by Johnny Mercer, who had written 1961’s Christmas number 1 Moon River. The original singer was Dorothy Lamour in the 1942 musical The Fleet’s In, which Schertzinger directed. The lyrics apparently spoke of Mercer’s love for Judy Garland, and he gave it to her the day after she married David Rose, which adds a bittersweet edge to the happy-go-lucky Ifield version.

So why did Ifield become so successful? I’m afraid this is another one of those mysteries lost in the midst of time.Perhaps Brits just used to like a bit of yodelling. After all, Slim Whitman’s Rose Marie was both yodel-packed and enjoyed 11 weeks at the top in 1955. I Remember You is actually quite charming in an endearingly quaint way. Unlike Britain’s other superstar Cliff, who’s songs are often plain dull, Ifield relishes his chance to shine, and I’m a sucker for a harmonica – as were the Fab Four – Lennon later claimed this song was the inspiration for including one on their early tracks. But if the Beatles hadn’t happened, is this really the direction music would have gone in?

I Remember You got settled in nicely at number 1 and didn’t budge for seven weeks. During that time, Jamaica became independent on 6 August, with Trinidad and Tobago close behind on the 31st. 17 August was the release date for the Tornados’ innovative future number 1 Telstar. The following day, the Beatles played their first gig with the line-up that changed everything. Pete Best had been usurped and Ringo Starr was now behind the drums. Five days later, Lennon married Cynthia Powell at a register office in Mount Pleasant, Liverpool. 1 September saw Channel Television, the ITV franchise for the Channel Islands, go on air; and the next day, Glasgow’s trams ran for the last time, leaving Blackpool tramway the only one left in Britain.

Written by: Victor Scherzinger & Johnny Mercer

Producer: Norrie Paramor

Weeks at number 1: 7 (26 July-12 September) *BEST-SELLING SINGLE OF THE YEAR*

Births:

Journalist John Micklethwait – 11 August 
Actress Sophie Aldred – 20 August 
Actor Peter Wingfield – 5 September

Deaths:

Poet Richard Aldington – 27 July

137. Mike Sarne with Wendy Richard – Come Outside (1962)

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April 1962 had seen the release of Carry On Cruising, the sixth film in the series. By this point, the movies had developed (or regressed depending on which way you look at it) into bawdy innuendo-laden comedies – saucy seaside postcards on film. Sid James and Kenneth Williams were topping the bills, and this type of humour remained incredibly popular for years to come. So it comes as no surprise that eventually someone would try to capture this essence on vinyl. Writer and producer Charles Blackwell was the guilty party that came up with Come Outside.

Blackwell had been working with genius producer Joe Meek, and had helped arrange Johnny Remember Me, so we’re clearly talking about someone who should know better. Its singer, John Leyton, was an actor, and a starring role in a soap had helped the single get to number 1. Perhaps he had this in mind, as Leyton was managed by future influential figure Robert Stigwood, who also managed Mike Sarne.

Sarne, born Michael Scheuer in 1940, was primarily an actor, but also dabbled in music. He provided phonetic transcriptions to guide singers including Leyton and Billy Fury in cutting German versions of their hits. It seems that Blackwell approached Stigwood with Come Outside, and one of them considered Sarne perfect for the job. At the time, a young actress called Wendy Richard was working as his secretary. Although she was born in Middlesbrough, she had developed a strong line in sardonic putdowns, spoken in a broad Cockney accent. Stigwood thought she could make the perfect comic foil for Sarne, but Blackwell wasn’t keen. Let’s be grateful Stigwood won out, because if he hadn’t, the song would seem even seedier than it became.

It’s important to remember just how popular smutty comedy was in the 1960s and 70s when listening to Come Outside. I’m not defending it – it’s bloody awful, and this is from someone with a soft spot for the Carry On films – but context is everything. This is a comedy song, and shouldn’t be taken too seriously, but in the era of #MeToo, it makes for uncomfortable listening.

Musically, Come Outside isn’t too bad. It’s a catchy tune, and it doesn’t sound too far removed from the Merseybeat sound that was yet to come. Mike Sarne is performing the song as a cheeky Cockney rogue who’s just dying to get his ‘little doll’ outside for a bit of ‘slap and tickle’ as he calls it. The trouble is, Wendy Richard would rather listen to the band that’s performing. And so Sarne goes on and on, in this awful, flat Cockney voice, harassing her to join him because ‘There’s a lovely moon out there’. I don’t think astronomy is on his mind for one second, and Richard’s character is no fool either. In fact, she played a slightly older version of this character for years in Are You Being Served?. Miss Brahms spent most of her time fending off the amorous Mr Lucas, and various characters that replaced him, throughout the 70s, using sarcasm as her main form of defence. Did Perry and Croft know this song well enough to give her the part on the basis of this performance? You could almost congratulate her character in this song for refusing to take any crap, but sadly by the end of Come Outside, she can’t take his moaning any longer, and Sarne gets his way as the song fades out.

This song didn’t seem to come up too much in obituaries for Richard when she died of breast cancer in 2005, and I had no idea she’d had a number 1 single until I began researching this. You can’t blame anyone for preferring to concentrate on her long -running roles as Miss Brahms and then Pauline Fowler as EastEnders, the latter of which made her a national treasure. I wouldn’t blame Richard for wanting to keep quiet about Come Outside either. Sarne eventually ditched music and moved solely into acting and directing, but before then he made other songs, including Will I What?, which repeated the number 1 formula but with Billy Davis in the female role. This time, she puts him off by mentioning marriage and he suddenly remembers he’s meant to be with the boys down the pub. Oh that lad! What a cad/dickhead!

In other news during July 1962, the month began with more heavy smog over London, making the summer air, darkening the summer mood. Laurence Olivier became the first artistic director of Chichester Festival Theatre, upon its opening on 3 July. And on 11 July, live television was broadcast from the US to the UK for the first time via the Telstar communications satellite, with the first public transmission on 23 July. Blackwell’s associate and electronics obsessive Joe Meek was no doubt watching from his flat-cum-studio, and an idea for a song was forming.

UPDATE: The Wikipedia entry for this song mentions a remake in 1991 for Children in Need, performed by Samantha Fox, Frank Bruno, Liz Kershaw and Bruno Brookes. I naturally assumed this was a joke, but apparently, such a thing exists! If anyone can point me in the direction of this, I can die happy. An official Children in Need song about a man pestering his girlfriend for sex – and they say the 70s were politically incorrect…

ANOTHER UPDATE: I’ve found the video!

Written & produced by: Charles Blackwell

Weeks at number 1: 2 (28 June-11 July)

Births:

Actress Amanda Donohoe – 29 June
Actor Neil Morrissey – 4 July