The first new number 1 of 1972 was the first time a song was a mammoth hit because of its association with a TV advert. Georgie Fame and The Blue Flames topped the charts in 1966 with Get Away, which was used in a commercial for petrol, but I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing (In Perfect Harmony), used by Coca-Cola, is probably the most famous example of all, and the one that opened ad men’s eyes to the idea of how much money could be made this way.
It all began in Ireland a year previous. Bill Backer was the creative director for the McCann Erickson advertising agency in the US. Backer was supposed to be meeting songwriter Billy Davis in London to discuss new radio jingles for the soft drink giant. Davis had written several brilliant hits for soul star Jackie Wilson, including Reet Petite (1986 Christmas number 1) and (Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher and he had then moved into the lucrative advertising world. Davis was to be joined by British hitmakers Roger Cook and Peter Greenaway.
London fog had caused Backer’s plane to land in Shannon, Ireland instead. Understandably, Backer noticed how angry some of the passengers were at being forced to stay there overnight until the fog lifted. But the following day, he noted many of those people were sat laughing and joking, many drinking from bottles of Coke. An idea began to form.
When he met with the others in London, Backer told them of his idea of ‘buying the world a Coke’. Davis wasn’t bowled over, saying if he had his way he’d buy everyone a house and give peace and love to all first. Backer told him to start writing and he’d show him how his concept could fit in with it. Together with Cook and Greenaway, who let them use the tune of a single they wrote for Susan Shirley called Mom, True Love and Apple Pie, they came up with ‘I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke’. A month later the jingles were released to US radio, and did so well, Davis’s DJ friends told him he should consider a single version.
Meanwhile, Backer was busy coming up with one of the most famous adverts of all time. So famous, it inspired the ending of one of the best US drama series of the past decade (I won’t say which, just in case you’re still watching it). Filming began on the white cliffs of Dover, but constant rain moved the shoot to Rome instead, where eventually 500 young people were assembled to lip sync to the catchy jingle. The epic advert, which you can see here, hit TV screens that July. It was huge.
Davis wanted The New Seekers to record a rewritten single version, but their manager said they were too busy, and so instead he arranged for session singers to record it, and christened them The Hillside Singers. The new version dropped all references to Coke, including their ‘It’s the real thing’ slogan. With the single climbing the charts, suddenly The New Seekers found themselves available.
Ironically, much like ‘New Coke’ in the 80s, London-based pop act The New Seekers had little connection to the Australian folk group The Seekers, who had achieved two UK number 1s in the 60s. They had split in 1968, and one of the quartet, Keith Potger, decided to use the name to give his new group, who he managed, a leg-up. Formed in 1969, they originally consisted of Laurie Heath, Chris Barrington, Marty Kristian, Eve Graham and Young Generation member Sally Graham (no relation).
The first album made no impact, so Potger shuffled the line-up around, adding himself, Lyn Paul, Peter Doyle and Paul Layton and removing Heath, Barrington and Sally Graham. Despite some US success, they continued to struggle in the UK until June 1971 when their cover of Delaney & Bonnie’s Never Ending Song of Love spent five weeks at number two. The reworking of the Coke jingle could be a great way to keep the ball rolling.
There’s no denying the infectious quality of Cook and Greenaway’s tune – so much so that expert pilferer Noel Gallagher adopted it for one of my favourite Oasis singles, Shakermaker. And obviously, the message of the Coke advert really struck a chord with America in particular, a country desperately in need of peace, love and unity as the war in Vietnam raged on (one has to wonder if ad companies are working on a similar thing during the coronavirus pandemic). But as a standalone single, it’s too twee and lightweight to deserve the mammoth sales it enjoyed. It sounds more like a Eurovision single circa 1968, playing catch-up with the hippy idealism of the time.
Nonetheless it established The New Seekers, who had a second number 1 in 1973. And Coca-Cola had another associated number 1 in the UK – the earnest power ballad First Time, by Robin Beck, in 1988.
Written by: Bill Backer, Bill Davis, Roger Cook & Roger Greenaway
Producer: Al Ham
Weeks at number 1: 4 (8 January-5 February)
Conservative MP Gavin Barwell – 23 January
Take That singer Mark Owen – 27 January
9 January: The National Union of Mineworkers held a strike ballot in which 58.8% voted in favour of industrial action. Coal miners began a strike which lasted for seven weeks. It was the first time they had been on strike officially since 1926, but more action would take place in the 70s.
20 January: Unemployment exceeded the 1,000,000 mark for the first time since the 30s – almost double the 582,000 who were unemployed when Edward Heath rose to to power less than two years previous – but that’s the Tories for you.
30 January: Bloody Sunday. After several years of growing tension in Northern Ireland, the most infamous incident of the Troubles took place when 14 Roman Catholic civil rights protestors were gunned down by British paratroopers in Londonderry. A further 14 were injured.
2 February: In retaliation for Bloody Sunday, protesters burned down the British Embassy in Dublin.
3–13 February: And yet Great Britain and Northern Ireland competed as one team at the Winter Olympics in Sapporo, Japan. But they didn’t win any medals.