Every 50s Number 1

The Intro

So, my first decade of number 1s is finished, 94 songs and seven months later. When I decided to review every UK number 1, I considered taking a random approach, but I decided starting right from the beginning would give me a wider knowledge of the progression of pop and pop culture in the UK. I did find the idea of kicking off with the 1950s a potentially arduous task, however. Although there are exceptions, my interest in music tends to really start in 1963 with the Beatles first album, and I know I’m not alone in feeling like that. I feared starting with the 50s would put some readers off. Also, it’s the decade that’s as far out of my comfort zone as I’m going to get with this mammoth blog task I’ve set myself.

Except maybe it isn’t.

The older I get (38 currently), I feel I’m going to really struggle with the 2010s so far. Don’t understand the kids of today, cannot stand autotune, etc… Anyway, I find myself getting more out of the 50s far more than I initially expected. It’s still music I find myself respecting rather than enjoying, and there haven’t been many I’ll be downloading for future listens I have to confess, but it has been a fascinating journey, and I’m surprised at how much music changed from 1952 to 1959.

Before I finish with the decade and move on to the swinging 60s, I decided it would be nice to (kind-of) repeat the task I set myself in December. Back then I listened to every Christmas number 1 in order, in one session, and decided on a best and worst for each decade, before coming up with an overall best and worst. That blog seemed to generate a lot of interest, so I thought I’d do the same with the 50s. I decided against listening to all 94 songs in one go, that seemed a little bit much, so I decided to take it a year at a time.

1952/53

Where it all began. As Al Martino’s Here in My Heart was the only number 1 of 1952, I’ve lumped it in with 1953. It’s neither the best nor worst of what followed. In general, the record-buying public will still in thrall of string-laden love songs, often melancholy, overwrought ballads, with the emphasis on how well the singer could hold a note. Form over content. Not the kind of music that floats my boat, really. It was less than ten years since World War Two, and music fans still liked to wade through syrupy songs of missing loved ones abroad. In 1953’s defence, though, at least it had a healthy amount of female singers topping the charts. Once rock’n’roll takes hold, they largely disappeared bar a few exceptions. There’s some strange novelty songs in there that you wouldn’t think of as chart-toppers – see (How Much is) That Doggie in the Window? and the un-PC She Wears Red Feathers. Frankie Laine dominated that year.

The Best:

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Kay Starr – Comes A-Long A-Love: Only three tracks in and already there were elements of a rock’n’roll sound mixed in with jazz. This took me by surprise, and it was more than welcome. Kay Starr’s strong vocal mixed with a breezy tune had a vital element missing from other songs that year – fun.

The Worst:

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David Whitfield with Stanley Black & His Orchestra – Answer Me: This is the decade at its least appealing to me. It’s so leaden and dreary. Whitfield’s vocals are too affected and operatic. The Frankie Laine version was better, but not by much, as it’s a pretty poor song anyway.

1954

Generally more of the same, but of a higher standard. Doris Day, Frank Sinatra and even Vera Lynn all make appearances, but they’re not their finest works. Rosemary Clooney’s jolly old knees-up about death, This Ole House is one of the highlights. A couple of instrumentals make it big, one good (Winifred Atwell’s Let’s Have Another Party), one not so good (Eddie Calvert’s Oh Mein Papa)

The Best:

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Johnnie Ray – Such a Night: Mr Emotion was probably the revelation of the decade for me. Previously I only knew him for his namecheck in Come On Eileen, and that Morrissey used to wear hearing aid in tribute to him.  I referred to him as the ‘prototype eccentric rock’n’roll star’, and his three number 1s were all unique forerunners of the music that was to follow. This one in particular must have sounded pretty racy at the time, and contained the first hint of sex, one of pop’s key ingredients.

The Worst:

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The Stargazers with Syd Dean & His Orchestra –  I See the Moon: This is genuinely offensive to my ears. At the time it was considered a comedy song. Praise be that comedy has moved on from ‘funny’ voices. It’s the audio equivalent of Colin Hunt from The Fast Show. When I first heard this I said the Stargazers sounded pissed-up and tone deaf. Nothing has happened to change my mind. Six weeks at the top of the charts?!

1955

The year of mambo, and Bill Haley. Perez ‘Prez’ Prado rules the roost when it comes to the former, with his version of Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White beating Eddie Calvert’s safer cover. Rosemary Clooney’s Mambo Italiano may not be the real deal but it’s a fun spoof. Tony Bennett makes his one and only appearance to date, and Slim Whitman’s haunting Rose Marie makes a big impact.

The Best:

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Bill Haley & His Comets – Rock Around the Clock: Tempting as it might be to go against the grain here and pick something less predictable, I can’t. Yes it must be nigh-on impossible to hear this and imagine the impact the decade’s best-seller made at the time, and it sounds safe now, but it’s still catchy as hell, and for me, it’s all about that guitar solo.

The Worst:

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Jimmy Young with Bob Sharples & His Music – Unchained Melody: Another one of the most famous songs of all time, but this is nowhere near as good as the Righteous Brothers version. It’s not even as good as Robson & Jerome’s. The blame doesn’t entirely lie with poor Jimmy Young, as the production is all over the place, but he really doesn’t help matters, lurching from barely trying to bellowing within seconds.

1956

Several strong singles this year, mainly Tennessee Ernie Ford’s tough ode to the working man, Sixteen Tons, and Johnnie Ray’s melancholic Christmas number 1, Just Walkin’ in the Rain, featuring an unforgettable whistling refrain. Elvis has arrived, but the UK has to make do with Pat Boone at the top instead with I’ll Be Home. Dean Martin makes his only appearance, and Doris Day returns with signature tune Whatever Will Be, Will Be.

The Best:

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The Teenagers Featuring Frankie Lymon – Why Do Fools Fall in Love: The first doo-wop song to make it to the top, the Teenagers one and only big hit was so influential on later soul and funk bands, and still sounds good to this day. Such a shame the band, and particularly Lymon, fell apart so soon.

The Worst:

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Anne Shelton with Wally Stott & His Orchestra – Lay Down Your Arms: Shudder. I disliked this song even more the second time around. I’m all for strong women, but Shelton needs to calm down a bit. Her poor lover must be terrified. I think I’d rather be at war than with Shelton.

1957

The year skiffle hit the top of the charts. Lonnie Donegan’s three number 1 songs left an indelible mark on music, even if it took some time for its impact to become apparent. 1957 is the strongest year for number 1s to date, and rock’n’roll is now dominant. Even the most old-fashioned song, Frankie Vaughan’s The Garden of Eden, sounds good. Legends such as Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly make their first appearances, and the former’s cultural impact becomes apparent, with Tommy Steele and Andy Williams impersonating him, to an occasionally embarrassing degree.

The Best:

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Lonnie Donegan & His Skiffle Group – Cumberland Gap: I used to think skiffle was a rather laughably quaint genre played on cheap, silly instruments. It’s only by listening to what came before Lonnie Donegan that I now understand and appreciate its true effect – to me it’s now almost as important as punk. The hardest part of choosing the best of 57 was picking between this and Donegan’s Gamblin’ Man, with it’s fiery ending, but Cumberland Gap came first and sounded like nothing I’d listened to up to that point.

The Worst:

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Guy Mitchell with Jimmy Carroll – Rock-a-Billy: Cheeky chappie Mitchell’s fourth and final chart-topper is mean-spirited and has the laziest chorus of any number 1 so far. A shame, as his previous single at the start of the year, Singing the Blues, proved he could actually be a dab hand at this new pop sound.

1958

Elvis was really on form with his second number 1 – Jailhouse Rock narrowly misses out on my favourite of this year and could have easily won in another year. Burt Bacharach and Hal David made their mark with two concurrent number 1s for Michael Holliday and Perry Como. Connie Francis finally returned a female artist to the top with a versatile selection of solid tunes – her Stupid Cupid introduced Neil Sedaka to the charts. The Everley Brothers made an excellent debut with the year’s highest seller, All I Have to Do is Dream, and Hoots Mon by Lord Rockingham’s XI was the finest novelty number 1 of the decade.

The Best:

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Jerry Lee Lewis – Great Balls of Fire: Direct, simplistic, fun, horny and mad, this just edges past Jailhouse Rock for me and got 1958 off to a great start. As far removed from some of the dreary monotony of 1953 as it’s possible to get in the same decade.

The Worst:

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Vic Damone – On the Street Where You Live: I feel bad for doing this when Vic Damone has so recently passed away, but it really does stick out like a sore thumb from the rest of 1958’s list. It sounds like it belongs in 1954. Sorry, Vic. RIP.

1959

Buddy Holly’s untimely death made It Doesn’t Matter Anymore the first posthumous chart-topper, and was a big influence on Adam Faith’s first number 1, What Do You Want?. Elvis was away in the army, and his singles output quality began to slip with A Fool Such as I/I Need Your Love Tonight. Rock’n’roll went all dreamy and teenage-orientated, with Jerry Keller’s one-hit wonder Here Comes Summer and Bobby Darin’s Dream Lover, before Darin used his success to take an interesting career change. Cliff Richard made his first of many appearances, with Living Doll the year’s best-seller, and Shirley Bassey made her debut at number 1. The decade ended with Emile Ford and the Checkmates’ solid What Do You Want To Make Those Eyes At Me For?.

The Best:

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Bobby Darin – Mack the KnifeA fascinating diversion from his previous number 1, Darin resisted scaring his young fans away with this swinging celebration of a serial killer, but Atlantic Records pushed for it anyway. It’s likely the fans ignored the lyrics and chose to be swept away by his cool vocals and the power and punch of the backing band. Suddenly pop was taking a dark turn, if you listened closely enough. Much covered, but probably never bettered.

The Worst:

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Russ Conway – Side Saddle: This one totally baffled me when I wrote my blog, and while I found it slightly better the second time around, I still can’t quite believe this was such a success, but context is everything, I guess. Nonetheless, it’s still the weakest number 1 of the year.

The Best 50s Number 1 Ever is…

Jerry Lee Lewis – Great Balls of FireDeciding on the best single proved to be much tougher than I first thought. It was very difficult to decide between this and Cumberland Gap, and Mack the Knife wasn’t far behind, either. Both songs shook up the music world, but in different ways. The winner is so ensconced in popular culture, it’s hard to imagine how it must have sounded as new, whereas I came in to Cumberland Gap completely fresh. If this decision was based on which single is most important, I’d have to award it to Cumberland Gap, as the influence of skiffle was so important on the following decade. It proved you didn’t have to have the voice of an opera singer to be at number 1, you didn’t have to have an orchestra backing you, and you didn’t even have to play expensive instruments. You could just make an all-mighty racket.

However, as impressed as I was by it, in the end this decision should also be based on personal enjoyment, as well as influence, mass appeal, inventiveness… and Great Balls of Fire has all of these. And despite me knowing it so well, it still managed to sound new and exciting, even after all this time. Plus, as great as Cumberland Gap sounds compared to most of the competition, in a way I had heard it before with the very similar and better known Rock Island Line. So congratulations, Jerry Lee Lewis. Despite being one of pop music’s first controversial figures, and therefore your brief period in the charts, you’ve managed to top Elvis and many other 50s legends, and Great Balls of Fire is one hell of a tune. You ripped up the rulebook when it came to the piano, and you showed the way pop was heading when it came to showmanship on the stage. And your best work was later used to sell cheese. But that’s record companies for you.

The Worst 50s Number 1 Ever is…

The Stargazers with Syd Dean & His Orchestra – I See the MoonNo contest. Reviewing every number 1 of the 50s was at times trying, and I knew it would be, but nothing prepared me for this. Don’t get me wrong, unlike many ‘serious music’ obsessives, there is a small place in my heart for comedy and novelty songs as genres, if they’re done right. And as I said above, context is everything. But I See the Moon is genuinely painful to listen to. I don’t get the joke, unless the joke is ‘Listen to how awful we sound’, in which case, the joke isn’t funny. In a decade with so number 1s that would be unimaginable now, I See the Moon is beyond comprehension to my poor ears.

The Outro

While I’m keen to get onto the number 1s of the 60s, and I originally saw reviewing the 50s tracks as a necessary evil in order to make it to the next batch, I am sorry to see it go. I’ve learnt a lot, about the social history as well as the music of the time, and it’s been a fascinating look at pop’s baby steps. Next, the decade of the Beatles, the Stones, Swinging London, the return of Labour to government, psychedelia, colour TV, British pop dominating at home and abroad… I can’t wait and I hope you can’t too.

Blogs on every 50s number 1 are available to view via the Archive section.

40. Dickie Valentine with Johnny Douglas & His Orchestra – Christmas Alphabet (1955)

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As winter 1955 dawned, Rock Around the Clock-mania had set in, and Bill Haley & His Comets were finally enjoying their stint at number 1. Although this was indeed a seismic event in music, it would be wrong to think that from then on, the UK number ones were constantly rock’n’roll numbers. Teenagers, as they had recently been named, still only represented a portion of the record-buying market. There were still a lot of older folk who were more than happy with the status quo, who liked a nice crooner to sing something warm and cosy, and especially with the dark nights drawing in, etc. Smooth singer Dickie Valentine had enjoyed a very successful year, with his collaboration with the Stargazers, Finger of Suspicion, topping the charts back in January. He was still enjoying fame at the end of the year, and must have been thinking it’d be pretty damn good to top and tail 1955’s charts with two number 1s. He got exactly that by cottoning on to an idea that would serve artists well for years to come – if you want a number 1 at Christmas time, why not do a song about Christmas time?

Christmas Alphabet had been written by Buddy Kaye and Jules Loman the previous year, and was performed by US singing trio The McGuire Sisters. Kaye liked his alphabet songs – he’d written ‘A’ You’re Adorable (The Alphabet Song) back in 1949 for Perry Como, although these days it’s probably best known as featuring in Angela Rippon’s guest spot on a Morecambe & Wise Christmas special. Valentine’s version became the more famous version, and the oldies won out, knocking Haley from his lofty perch and making Christmas Alphabet the first explicitly-festive Christmas number 1.

It’s based around a very simple idea. Valentine just lists seasonal stuff around each letter that makes up the word ‘Christmas’. He runs through it twice, to make sure it’s all sunk in, and that’s it, job done. Some of the rhyming is tenuous though…

‘S is for the Santa who makes every kid his pet,
Be good and he’ll bring you everything in your Christmas alphabet!’

Erm, sorry, what? Santa makes every kid his pet? It’s news to me. Disturbing news, at that.

Although by this stage of my blog I’ve been longing for rock’n’roll to come along and shake things up, I have to confess that I don’t mind Christmas Alphabet. Reason being, I’m a sucker for a Christmas song. Especially older ones. Christmas is of course, a time for feeling all cosy and warm, if you’re lucky enough to have that option. 50s music is often perfect at encapsulating that. So I’m quite surprised, especially considering its historical importance, that Christmas Alphabet seems to have been forgotten about. You never hear it in shops, and it’s never on compilations. John Lewis are unlikely to get someone to make one of those annoying, wet, folky covers and stick it on an advert, either. It might be a slight little number, but it deserves to be remembered.

You could say the same about Valentine himself. Despite being adored at the time, he’s been largely forgotten, and that might be a reason behind Christmas Alphabet‘s obscurity. His popularity waned in the next decade, and he met a tragic end in 1971. Aged only 41, he was driving to a gig in Wales with bandmates at over 90mph in the early hours of the morning, when he lost control of the vehicle on a bend, killing the three of them.

Written by: Buddy Kaye & Jules Loman

Producer: Dick Rowe

Weeks at number 1: 3 (16 December-5 January 1956)

Births:

Poet Carol Ann Duffy – 23 December

27. Dickie Valentine with the Stargazers and Johnny Douglas & His Orchestra – Finger of Suspicion (1955)

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By the time 1955 rolled around, people were a bit exhausted from a month of honky tonk madness courtesy of Winifred Atwell. Let’s Have Another Party was toppled by Finger of Suspicion, sung by Dickie Valentine with the Stargazers. The Stargazers had twice before took number 1, with Broken Wings and I See the Moon, but this was Valentine’s first of two that year.

Valentine, born Richard Maxwell, had been a child actor, starring in Jack’s the Boy in 1932 when he was only three years old. he moved into music as a teen, impersonating famous singers, before music publisher Sid Green brought him to the attention of bandleader star Ted Heath. He joined Ted Heath’s band in 1949, singing alongside Dennis Lotis and Lita Roza, who had a number one in 1953 with (How Much is That) Doggie in the Window?.   Looking rather like a young Orson Welles, Valentine demonstrated star quality and was voted Top UK Male Vocalist in 1952, and again in 1954. By this point he was a solo artist. Following the success of his Royal Command Performance that November, Finger of Suspicion worked its way to the top.

Written by Paul Mann and Al Lewis, Finger of Suspicion trundles along nicely. At first unassuming, it’s somewhat of an earworm. It’s not a song about crime, unless the crime is taking Valentine’s heart. Yes, the singer is just being a bit of a charmer really. He’s not sleeping well, he’s so in love with this girl, which might explain the song’s stately pace. The Stargazers work well as his backing singers, making up for the abomination that was I See the Moon.

Finger of Suspicion had somewhat of a chart war with Rosemary Clooney and the Mellomen’s Mambo Italiano. She knocked him off the top after only a week, before Valentine took over again for a fortnight, only for Clooney and co. to win out again. 1955 was easily Dickie Valentine’s biggest year of success. with three more top ten hits, before getting the Christmas number 1 spot. The Stargazers had further hits that year, but their time at number 1 was over.

On 23 January, an express train derailed at Sutton Coldfield railway station after taking a curve too fast. 43 were injured, and 17 killed. Four days later, Michael Tippett’s controversial opera The Midsummer Marriage was premiered at the Royal Opera House.

Written by: Paul Mann & Al Lewis

Producer: Dick Rowe

Weeks at number 1: 3 (7-13 January, 21 January-3 February)

Births:

Presenter Kirsty Wark – 3 February

Deaths:

Artist Lamorna Birch – 7 January
Dancer Annette Mills –  10 January
Politician Sir Rhys Rhys-Williams – 29 January

18. Doris Day with Orchestra conducted by Ray Heindorf – Secret Love (1954)

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US smash-hit musical western Calamity Jane was first released in November 1953. Loosely based on the life of the title character and her alleged romance with notorious folk hero “Wild Bill” Hickok, it starred Doris Day and Howard Keel in the central roles. Doris Day was one of the most well-known singers and actresses of the era. Originally she wanted to be a dancer, but an accident forced her out of action and she discovered a talent for singing. The sugary timbre of her voice and film-star looks soon captivated radio, film and television audiences, right from her first hit, Sentimental Journey, back in 1945.

On 16 April, 1954, UK singles buyers saw sense and decided that a song from the film, Secret Love, was more deserving of the number one spot than the execrable I See the Moon by the Stargazers. The ballad was written by composer Sammy Fain, with Paul Francis Webster providing the lyrics. With lyrics describing the joy of finally being able to tell the world of a love kept under wraps, Day was visibly moved when Fain visited her to play it for the first time. The day of the recording, she warmed-up her voice, cycled to the studio and announced to musical director Ray Heindorf that she would only perform one take of her vocal. Despite understandable misgivings, Heindorf was ecstatic after the take, agreeing that she could never outdo herself.

It would seem this song had special meaning for Day, she clearly loved it and it shows in that one-take performance. A cut above other songs of this ilk, her authentic vocal turns from typically sweet to barely-contained delight at times. The stirring strings replicate the chorus and add to its hit factor. Secret Love gave Day her fourth US number one, and won the Academy Award for Best Original Song on 25 March. However she caused controversy by refusing to perform it at the ceremony. The subsequent bad press saw Day housebound with depression for some time afterwards. Nonetheless, a few weeks later it became her first UK number 1.

In a clear display of how mad our record-buying public can often be, I See the Moon returned to the top after only a week. Not for long though, and on 8 May, Secret Love toppled Johnnie Ray’s Such a Night, beginning eight weeks as best-selling single. Day soon came out of the doldrums and continued to entertain for decades to come. In fact, she’s one of the few stars from this era still with us.

Written by: Sammy Fain & Paul Francis Webster 

Producer: Ray Heindorf

Weeks at number 1: 9 (16-22 April, 8 May-1 July) *BEST-SELLING SINGLE OF THE YEAR*

Births:

Footballer Trevor Francis – 19 April
Entertainer Gary Wilmot – 8 May

Deaths:

Mathematician Alan Turing – 7 June

17. The Stargazers with Syd Dean & His Orchestra – I See the Moon (1954)

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On 24 March, 1954, following an eight-day trial, The Lord Montagu of Beaulieu, Peter Wildeblood and Michael Pitt-Rivers were convicted for ‘conspiracy to incite certain male persons to commit serious offences with male persons’. Sent to prison for being gay, basically. Perhaps the most long-winded reason in history, this was the charge that sent Oscar Wilde to prison in 1895. Sir David Maxwell Fyfe, Home Secretary at the time, had promised to ‘rid England of this plague’. Lord Montagu had already been in court a year earlier, and claimed he was part of a witch-hunt to commit someone high profile. Montagu continued to protest his innocence, and eventually public opinion turned in his favour, and his case is considered one of the main reasons for the reform of the law on homosexuality.

The number 1 single at the time was I See the Moon, by the Stargazers. It had knocked Eddie Calvert’s Oh Mein Papa from the top on 12 March. If Calvert’s nine-week run seems odd now, well, I See the Moon having a five-week stint, followed by a further week later, is just staggering.  It was written by US playwright and composer Meredith Wilson, who later became best known for being the man behind hit Broadway musical The Music Man.

This was the radio comedy group’s second number 1. The first, Broken Wings, was quite a staid, serious affair.  I’d take that over this though. The song itself isn’t too bad, but the production and performance are nauseating. The only real selling point is that it offers a curious glimpse into what passed as comedy in 1954. Produced by Dick Rowe, who also produced Broken Wings and (How Much is That) Doggie in the Window?, there are self-consciously wacky noises that harm the ears,. The Stargazers, for some unfathomable reason, decide to sing as though they are pissed-up and tone deaf. Easily the worst number 1 so far, I’d have to say. And yet Rowe went on to sign, among others, the Rolling Stones, Them and the Small Faces.

For five weeks this was considered the best song in the country, until Doris Day took over with the more deserving Secret Love. Yet somehow I See the Moon went back to number 1 on 23 April! The Stargazers had one more number 1 in 1955 with Dickie Valentine. I haven’t listened yet, but i’m guessing it beats this.

Written by: Meredith Wilson

Producer: Dick Rowe

Weeks at number 1: 6 (12 March-15 April, 23-29 April)

Births:

Actress Leslie Anne-Down – 17 March

Deaths:

Rugby union international James Peters – 26 March

7. The Stargazers – Broken Wings (1953)

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On 24 March 1953, while She Wears Red Feathers continued its hold on the top of the UK charts, Queen Mary, consort of the deceased King George V, died peacefully in her sleep. On the same day, the discovery of several bodies at 10 Rillington Place shocked the country. The murderer, John Christie, had moved out four days earlier, leaving several bodies hidden around the house. He had killed at least eight people, including his wife Ethel. A week later on 31 March, both the funeral of Queen Mary and the arrest of Christie took place. Mary had insisted that the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II should not be delayed in the event of her death. The trial of Christie, later in the year, revealed a terrible miscarriage of justice in which a husband and father had been wrongly sentenced to death by hanging…

The ‘comic’ stylings of She Wears Red Feathers were knocked from number 1 on 10 April, and we were back to appropriately mournful ballad territory. Only this time, for the first time, the act responsible were not a US singer. They were actually homegrown, and there were five of them. The Stargazers, went through several incarnations following their inception in 1949, but it is believed at the time of their first number one the vocal group were Cliff Adams, Ronnie Milne, Marie Benson, Fred Datchler and Bob Brown. They had lots of success on BBC Radio during the 50s, so, like the US chart-toppers that preceded them, their appearances in the media of the time no doubt helped them achieve their number 1 placing.

Broken Wings has not aged well. Written by John Jerome and Bernard Gunn, the lyrics point out correctly that with broken wings, no bird can fly. The subject of the song has been let down by their lover, who has been unfaithful.

‘With broken wings, no bird can fly
And broken promises mean love must fade and die
I trusted you, you can”t be true
My heart no longer sings
It”s wings are broken too’.

Musically, the Stargazers’ cover is a dirge, with only one point of interest, which is the sparse instrumentation, dominated by an electric piano. Very different to what had been top of the pops up to this point. A week later they were replaced by something much more memorable and light-hearted, but the Stargazers weren’t done with the charts. If you want to hear a catchier song called Broken Wings, there is of course, this track by Mr Mister.

Written by: John Jerome & Bernard Gunn

Producer: Dick Rowe

Weeks at number 1: 1 (10-16 April)

Births:

Mathematician Andrew Wiles – 11 April
Politician Stephen Byers – 13 April