232. Sandie Shaw – Puppet on a String (1967)

sandie-shawMay 1967 was exceptionally wet with frequent thunderstorms. On the second day of the month, Prime Minister Harold Wilson announced that the UK would be applying for EEC membership. On the sixth, Manchester United won the Football League First Division title. Five days later, the UK and Republic of Ireland officially applied for the EEC.

The month before, the UK became the first winners of the Eurovision Song Contest with an English language track. Sandie Shaw, a former number 1 artist twice with (There’s) Always Something There to Remind Me in 1964 and Long Live Love in 1965, was victorious in Vienna, Austria with Puppet on a String.

Since Long Live Love the hits had continued for Shaw for a time, including Message Understood and Tomorrow, but steadily the sales numbers began to drop and by 1967 she was only scraping into the top 40.

A large factor in this may have been the fact she was involved in a divorce scandal. She had been involved in an affair with Douglas Murdoch, a TV executive on Ready, Steady, Go! Her management decided a move into cabaret, to present a more family-friendly image, may save her. Shaw disagreed and thought it would destroy all her credibility, but she still found herself performing five songs on The Rolf Harris Show, which the public would then vote on to choose the track she would perform in Vienna.

To her horror, Puppet on a String was a runaway success. It nearly didn’t happen though, as the BBC were horrifed by the sex scandal (the judge called her a ‘spoiled child’) and were ready to drop her right up until the day before the show.The barefooted performer, in her 1991 autobiography The World at my Feet (clever title), she said, ‘I hated it from the very first oompah to the final bang on the big bass drum. I was instinctively repelled by its sexist drivel and cuckoo-clock tune.’

 

Shaw has it spot on. What a painful listen. The oompah element is bad enough, but is at a manic speed that makes her wailing sound like a needy woman on the edge of a nervous breakdown. It’s sadly ironic she ended up singing such pathetic lyrics, as she was clearly a strong woman, which was probably sadly unusual in the pop world at the time. The song’s protaganist is likely being used and seems okay with that, despite the ups and downs.

It’s bad enough being subjected to it once. Now, imagine you’re Shaw, a once-respectable star, reduced over the years to performing it over and over. It could send anyone insane. The fact the song will have reminded her of a tough time in her personal life will have only made her hate Puppet on a String all the more.

However, her management were wise to enter the song in Eurovision, as this is precisely the kind of crap its audience lapped up back then, and she was popular in the continent. It won by a huge margin, made her the first female artist to have three number 1s, and was the biggest selling single of the year in Germany. It’s also believed to be the biggest-selling Eurovision song of all time, and potentially the biggest-selling single by a British female singer ever. Let that sink in for a moment.

Her career revitalised, the Dagenham singer was a sensation once more. In 1968 she began her own fashion label and the BBC soon forgot their issues with her, giving her a TV series, The Sandie Shaw Supplement. Her last hit single was Monsieur Dupont in 1969, which reached number six. Also that year she released an album of covers of the hip rock stars of the time. Reviewing the Situation featured her version of Led Zeppelin’s Your Time Is Gonna Come, and ended with a decent version of the Rolling Stones’ Sympathy for the Devil. The decade came to a close with her single Heaven Knows I’m Missing Him Now – the inspiration for the Smiths’ Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now in 1984.

When her contract with Pye Records ran out in 1972 she chose to retire from music. She had branched out into acting and writing children’s books, but eventually found herself working as a waitress in a London restaurant. She released two singles in 1977 and the following year became a Buddhist, which she still is. She also divorced her first husband, fashion designer Jeff Banks in 1978.

In 1982 she married Nik Powell, co-founder of the Virgin Group with Richard Branson, and she was introudced to the new wave of pop stars, working with BEF (later to become Heaven 17) and duetting with Chrissie Hynde at a Pretenders concert. Her first album in years, Choose Life, was released in 1983.

Later that year she received a letter from ‘two incurable Sandie Shaw fans’. Morrissey and Johnny Marr, singer and guitarist in indie darlings and 60s-pop-star-worshippers the Smiths, told her that, ‘the Sandie Shaw legend isn’t over yet. There is more to be done.’ Powell knew Geoff Travis, owner of the Smiths’ label Rough Trade, and soon she was recording her version of their debut single Hand in Glove. Morrissey was obsessed with the fact their first release hadn’t been a hit, and hoped Shaw would rectify this. Although it only reached number 27, she was back on Top of the Pops, miming with Marr, Andy Rourke and Mike Joyce backing her. Two years later she was touring universities with a backing band made up of members of new wave group JoBoxers.

Her life took another turn in the 90s, when she divorced again and met third husband Tony Bedford. She trained to be a psychotherapist and together in 1997 they opened the Arts Clinic with the aim of providing help for those in creative industries. She also battled for control of her archive recordings and made new versions of her 60s and 80s recordings.In the 00s Shaw seems to have come to terms with Puppet on a String, announcing she was proud of her Eurovision past. To celebrate her 60th birthday in 2007 she released a remake, Puppet’s Got a Brand New String, produced by 80s pop star Howard Jones. She wisely ditched the oompah stylings of the original, though.

In 2010 she recorded the theme to the comedy film Made in Dagenham, which dramatised the Ford sewing machinists strike of 1968. Shaw had actually worked there before she was famous. Lyrics came from left-wing singer-songwriter Billy Bragg.

Sandie Shaw was made an MBE in 2017. Now 71, she is well respected as a key figure of the 60s pop scene and a formidable personality who refused to tow the line in a male-dominated industry. We can easily forgive her for Puppet on a String.

Written by: Bill Martin & Phil Coulter

Producer: Ken Woodman

Weeks at number 1: 3 (27 April-17 May) 

Births:

Footballer David Rocastle – 2 May
Journalist Jon Ronson – 10 May

Deaths:

Poet John Masefield – 12 May 

129. Elvis Presley – (Marie’s the Name) His Latest Flame/Little Sister (1961)

074-His-Latest-Flame-7908A.jpg

On 9 November, Miss United Kingdom, the Welsh-born Rosemarie Frankland became the first British winner of the Miss World beauty contest. The competition had been running for 11 years at this point, and had taken place at the Lyceum Theatre in London.

On the same day, Elvis Presley went to number 1 for the 9th time. Before the Beatles, Elvis was untouchable when it came to chart domination in the UK, but by this point his record sales had dipped somewhat in the US. Despite this, (Marie’s the Name) His Latest Flame/Little Sister (both written by Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman, and recorded during another marathon session in June), was one of his better number 1 releases.

After several attempts at various European sounds, (Marie’s the Name) His Latest Flame is a throwback to Presley’s early years, and is all the better for it. You can’t really go wrong when using a Bo Diddley beat, and Elvis doesn’t dominate the track, letting the musicians really shine. The lyrics contain a twist, as it turns out Marie was Elvis’s woman, but she’s ran off with ‘a very old friend’, only a day after saying she’d be his for eternity. Poor Elvis. The lack of vocal showboating also helps suggest that, for a change, he’s a loser this time around.

This is one of my favourite Elvis number 1s, although this may be, in part, down to my love of the Smiths. The band lifted the rhythm and used it on Morrisey’s ode to fairgrounds, Rusholme Ruffians, from 1985’s Meat is Murder. Morrissey and Marr shared a love of 50s pop, and Elvis was one of the most famous people to feature on a Smiths sleeve – namely 1987’s Shoplifters of the World Unite. Choosing not to hide his influence, the band would play live performances of Rusholme Ruffians as a medley with (Marie’s the Name) His Latest Flame, as you can hear on posthumous live album Rank (1988)

Flip side Little Sister showcases a more raw Elvis sound than we’ve heard for some time. Okay, it’s a complete rip-off of Johnny Kidd & the Pirates’ groundbreaking Shakin’ All Over, but I’d rather hear that than anotherWooden Heart. We’re on potentially dodgy ground lyrically, as Elvis is so hurt by his lover this time (she’s only gone and ran off with Jim Dandy), he’s decided to chance his arm with her little sister. We’re not made aware of how young she is, but this verse is questionable:

‘Well, I used to pull your pigtails
And pinch your turned-up nose
But you been a growin’
And baby, it’s been showin’
From your head down to your toes’

Hmm. Nonetheless, it’s great to hear the rock’n’roll side of Elvis once more. The booming bass vocal of Jordanaire Ray Walker is superfluous, however.

Unlike so many singles in 1961 that came and went at number 1 after a week, Presley’s usually stuck around a while longer, and this was no exception, spending four weeks at the top, and during the tenth anniversary of the birth of the UK charts. In its final week, a sexual revolution began when birth control pills became available on the National Health Service. The move would have a far-reaching effect on society, and you could argue the swinging 60s began on this day – 4 December.

Written by: Doc Pomus & Mort Shuman

Producer: Steve Sholes

Weeks at number 1: 4 (9 November-6 December)

Births:

Presenter Jill Dando – 9 November 
Boxer Frank Bruno – 16 November 
Actor Martin Clunes – 28 November

19. Johnnie Ray – Such a Night (1954)

JohnnieRay.jpg

‘Poor old Johnnie Ray sounded sad upon the radio
He moved a million hearts in mono.’

Immortalised in the video and opening line of Come On Eileen by Dexys Midnight Runners,  it’s a shame that it seems to be what US singer and songwriter Johnnie Ray is best known for these days. As great a song as it is, he deserves better. In many ways the prototype eccentric rock’n’roll star, he was troubled, sexual and most of all, different. He wasn’t a cardigan crooner or your typical teen idol, but for a time he was just as popular. He was a big influence on Elvis Presley, who later covered this song, and Morrissey wore a hearing aid in the early years of the Smiths. He did this because Ray became deaf in his left ear as a child. This no doubt contributed to his unique vocal performances. Ray was one of the first, if not the first star to show you could turn your weaknesses into your greatest strengths. He was influenced by, among others, Kay Starr, whose jazzy, rhythmic singing on previous number 1, Comes A-Long A-Love was one of the earliest signals of rock’n’roll to make the charts. In 1952 he enjoyed his first big success with the double-A side (a rarity in itself back then) of Cry/The Little White Cloud That Cried. On 30 April, his cover of Such a Night became his first UK number 1.

Such a Night had originally been hit for soul group The Drifters. It was songwriter Lincoln Chase’s first big hit, and caused some controversy for being a bit too racy for the 1950s. Johnnie Ray had no qualms about not only covering it, but making it sound positively filthy by the usual standards of the day. The lyrics and rhymes are very basic, but it’s all about the delivery with this song, produced by hitmaker Mitch Miller. Ray doesn’t hold back, he grunt and groans, and makes it clear he’s not just talking about kissing his girl. Finally, sex had made it’s way to the top of the charts (the nudge-nudge wink-wink of Guy Mitchell’s Look at That Girl barely compares) and already the likes of Frankie Laine started to look old-fashioned by comparison. It’s not quite there yet, and Ray would do better, but the ingredients of rock’n’roll and pop are noticeable.

Like many of the best entertainers, be they musicians, actors, or comedians, Ray had personal issues, which no doubt helped with the intensity of his live performances. He would pull his hair, drop to his knees and cry, earning the nickname ‘Mr Emotion’ (in this television performance of Such a Night, he reminds me of Jarvis Cocker). He had alcohol problems, probably in part due to his sexuality. Being gay and in the public eye in 1954 wasn’t easy, to put it lightly. In 1951 he was arrested for soliciting an undercover police officer for sex. As he wasn’t famous back then, the newspapers didn’t make a big deal of it. A year later, he married Marilyn Morrison, who knew of the arrest but reckoned she could change his ways. She couldn’t, and they divorced in 1954.

On 6 May, the day before Secret Love by Doris Day returned to the top of the charts, athlete Roger Bannister made history by becoming the first person to break the four-minute mile, despite terrible weather conditions.

Written by: Lincoln Chase

Producer: Mitch Miller

Weeks at number 1: 1 (30 April-6 May)

Deaths:

Journalist JC Forbes – 6 May