There are many baffling number 1s scattered through the years of the singles chart. This must be one of the biggest mysteries. Not only did The Pipes and Drums and the Military Band of the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards topple Without You from number 1 with their instrumental cover of the Christian hymn Amazing Grace – it became the biggest seller of 1972.
One of the oldest known songs to reach the top spot, Amazing Grace dates back to 1772, when the words were first written by English poet and clergyman John Newton. He grew up a wayward soul, narrowly avoiding death several times and each time hoping to repent and become closer to God, before reverting to his old ways. He was pressed into the Royal Navy, but would take advantage of chances to overstay his leave, and he deserted to visit a lover. Because of this, he was traded as crew to a slave ship, and began a career in slave trading. How very unholy. Newton had a taste of his own medicine however. After falling out with crew members and writing obscene poems about the ship’s captain, he would be chained up like the slaves on the ship.
In 1748, the ship Greyhound was hit by a terrible storm and nearly capsized. Newton, who had been reading religious texts beforehand, exclaimed ‘Lord have mercy upon us!’. When the Greyhound was finally safe, Newton pondered if, indeed, God had saved them. Not that this was enough to convert him instantly – Newton married his lover, but remained in the slave trade for a while.
In 1756 the Newtons were living in Liverpool, and he became obsessed with religion. Eight years later Newton was offered the curacy of the small village of Olney in Buckinghamshire. He befriended a gifted writer, William Cowper, and became interested in writing hymns. The duo decided to present a new poem or hymn at each weekly prayer meeting. Newton wrote the lyrics in late 1772 and they were likely first read on New Year’s Day 1773. A collection of their work, Olney Hymns, was bound and published anonymously in 1779. ‘1 Chronicles 17:16–17, Faith’s Review and Expectation’ was the name of the hymn that began with ‘Amazing grace! (how sweet the sound)’.
Olney Hymns became very popular in Britain with evangelicals, although Amazing Grace wasn’t among the ones widely used. It was in the early-19th-century religious revival of communal singing in the US that it caught on. Nobody knows what, if any, music the hymn was set to initially, but the first known instance had it set to the tune Hephzibah by English composer John Husband in 1808. There were 20 differing versions until 1835 when American composer William Walker assigned Newton’s words to the song New Britain. His tunebook Southern Harmony, published in 1847, was a huge seller, and this became the definitive Amazing Grace, of which there are over a thousand recorded versions, including this one.
The first known recorded version was an a cappella performance by the Sacred Harp Choir in 1922. It was US gospel singer Mahalia Jackson’s 1947 recording that revived Amazing Grace in the 20th century and turned it into, ironically, a song used by African Americans to express their joy at being delivered from slavery. From there it became ever more popular for political reasons during the civil rights movement and opposition to the Vietnam War.
Folk singer Judy Collins (strangely credited for the song on the original vinyl by the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards) witnessed the song’s power on a civil rights march in 1964 and began performing it regularly. She recorded it a cappella for her 1970 album Whales & Nightingales and claimed it helped her through her alcohol dependency. It became a big hit, reaching number five in the UK.
And somehow this song that was used as a means of protest against war made its way to the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards. This cavalry regiment of the British Army was formed on 2 July at Holyrood, Edinburgh. Some time after, the pipes and drums recorded an LP, arranged by Stuart Fairbarn, based on Collins’ version. According to a 1972 article by The New York Times, late-night DJs picked this track from the album The Amazing Sound of the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards and it grew in popularity, which must surely have come as a surprise even at the time.
Clearly, there must have been a love for bagpipes in the UK in the 70s, as this number 1 can’t help but bring to mind the fact that Mull of Kintyre, five years later, became one of the biggest-sellers of all time. Why was this? I can find no point of reference upon investigation. This wasn’t the theme for a TV show or film, for example. I wonder if, in the light of The Troubles, the English felt closer to the Scottish? Was the news of all the violence in Northern Ireland making people turn to Scottish culture? Quite possibly – but if so, how do you explain the fact it also went to number 1 in Australia, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa?
Personally speaking, I’m ok with bagpipes, which can be somewhat divisive. I like the droning quality they bring to music. My favourite use is when they appear unexpectedly on Parliament’s beautiful cover of Ruth Copeland’s The Silent Boatman. And who doesn’t love Amazing Grace? Difficult song to get wrong, and it’s tastefully done, with Pipe Major Tony Crease’s solo mirroring Collins’ voice. But after two listens, I’m no clearer to understanding just how this became the year’s biggest single.
The irony of reading how a song by a slave trader became so important to black people as the Black Lives Matter movement rages on around me hasn’t escaped me. I wonder if this song will soon be #cancelled along with the statues of racists, or whether it will escape the understandable anger due to its ubiquitous use in the black community.
Despite its huge success in 1972, the Pipe Major at the time was summoned to Edinburgh Castle for a telling off for demeaning the bagpipes. As the money rolled in, there must have been a softening of the rules as, The Royal Scots Dragoon Guards have released many albums since, including a remake of this song.
Written by: Traditional
Producer: Pete Kerr
Weeks at number 1: 5 (15 April-19 May) *BEST-SELLING SINGLE OF THE YEAR*
Motorcycle racer John McGuinness – 16 April
Racewalker Vicky Lupton – 17 April
Actress Sarah Patterson – 22 April
Footballer Paul Adcock – 2 May
Broadcast journalist Katya Adler – 3 May
Olympic rower James Cracknell – 5 May
Poet EV Rieu – 11 May
19 April: Lord Chief Justice Lord Widgery exonerated the British troops who opened fire on Bloody Sunday of blame, saying the demonstration had been illegal.
30 April: The Brighton Belle Pullman car train made its final journey from London to Brighton.
3 May: In the first ever UEFA Cup final, Tottenham Hotspur beat Wolverhampton Wanderers 2-1 in the first leg at the Molineux in Wolverhampton.
6 May: Leeds United won the FA Cup for first time, defeating 1971 winners Arsenal 1-0 at Wembley Stadium.
8 May: Derby County won the Football League’s First Division title for the first time.
12 May: The Crown Court, established by the Courts Act 1971, replaced the Assize and Quarter Sessions in England and Wales. Also this day, property qualifications requiring jurors to be householders were abolished.
17 May: Spurs completed a 3-2 aggregate win over Wolverhampton Wanderers at White Hart Lane to win the first UEFA Cup.
18 May: Queen Elizabeth II met her ill uncle, Edward, Duke of Windsor for the last time, at his Paris home.