312. The Pipes and Drums and the Military Band of the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards (Carabiniers & Greys) Bandmaster W.O.I.CI. Herbert. Pipe Major W.O.II. J. Pryde – Amazing Grace (1972)

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*

Births:

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

Deaths:

Poet EV Rieu – 11 May

Meanwhile…

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.

172. The Animals – The House of the Rising Sun (1964)

1d7fb483a599d4d89a5baee7216c85d6.jpg

It may have only spent a week at number 1, but the impact of The Animals’ The House of the Rising Sun‘s was huge. It ushered in a new genre, folk rock, inspired Bob Dylan to go electric, and proved a hit single could be twice as long as was expected.

The origins of this traditional folk tale, whose author is unknown, date back hundreds of years. It shares a similar theme to the 16th-century ballad The Unfortunate Rake. Originally, the song was written from the perspective of a prostitute who worked at a brothel called the Rising Sun, with the oldest published lyrics (from 1925) beginning:

‘There is a house in New Orleans, it’s called the Rising Sun
It’s been the ruin of many a poor girl
Great God, and I for one’

The earliest recording, known as Rising Sun Blues, was performed by Clarence “Tom” Ashley and Gwen Foster in 1928. Later versions came from Woody Guthrie in 1941, Lead Belly in 1944 and 1948 (entitled In New Orleans and The House of the Rising Sun respectively), Joan Baez in 1960 and Nina Simone in 1962.

The version by The Animals most closely resembles Bob Dylan’s cover for his eponymous debut album in 1962. This is the first and certainly not the last time we’ll encounter Robert Zimmerman, who has never scored his own number 1 but whose songs have topped the charts several times over the years.

Dylan had swiped his arrangement too, from fellow folk revivalist Dave Van Ronk. An unusually sheepish Dylan asked Ronk if he was okay with him recording it, and Van Ronk asked him to hold off as he was about to go into the studio to record it himself. Dylan then admitted he had already recorded it.

The Animals formed when singer Eric Burdon joined The Alan Price Rhythm and Blues Combo, who had been a unit since 1958. Making up the rest of the band were Alan Price on organ and keyboards, Hilton Valentine on guitar, Bryan ‘Chas’ Chandler on bass and John Steel on drums. It’s usually believed that their new name came from their wild stage act, but in 2013 Burdon claimed they used their name by way of tribute to a mutual friend known as ‘Animal’ Hogg.

They moved to London in 1964 in the wake of Beatlemania to get signed, and subsequently did, to EMI Columbia. The group specialised in heavy versions of R’n’B numbers, and their first single, Baby Let Me Take You Home narrowly missed out on the top 20. According to Burdon, The Animals first heard The House of the Rising Sun in a Newcastle club, sung by Northumbrian folk singer Johnny Handle. They were touring with Chuck Berry, and were searching for a number to close their sets with that would make them stand out from other groups. It’s doubtful they realised they had stumbled upon their sole chart-topper.

Producer Mickie Most certainly didn’t realise. Most made a name for himself as a producer of  many hit singles over the 60s and 70s, and clearly had an ear for a good tune. But really, who could blame him for thinking The House of the Rising Sun was too long and not commercial enough?

It took only 15 minutes and one take in a tiny studio to record one of the decade’s most memorable number 1s. Valentine’s spine-tingling arpeggio intro, in which he plays Dylan’s chord sequence but on an electric guitar, is one of the greatest openings to a song of all time. Then Burdon’s deep growl begins, and the rest is history. Some have argued that the lyric change to make it about a man with a gambling addiction make the theme of the song less interesting, and they have a point, but really, all should be forgiven during this tour de force.

No number 1 had ever stayed stuck in one groove before, and certainly not for over four minutes (previously the record for the longest duration for a number 1 belonged to Harry Belafonte’s Mary’s Boy Child in 1957; The Animals would hold the record until the Beatles’ Hey Jude in 1968). The feeling is hypnotic and relentless, particularly during the second half when the band take it up a notch and Price goes to town on his Vox Continental.

I can imagine the impact of hearing this back then must have been similar to the birth of skiffle, where Lonnie Donegan had plundered old tunes and added an intensity that had rarely been heard up to that point. By the time they had finished, Most was a believer.

Despite the fact the whole band contributed to the arrangement, there was only room for one name on the record label, and as Alan Price’s forename was first alphabetically, he got the credit. This would later cause resentment, as Valentine understandably thought he should receive royalties for his part.

Two months after hitting pole position in the UK charts, The House of the Rising Sun spent three weeks at number 1 in the US, becoming the first bestseller during the British Invasion to be unconnected to The Beatles. Upon hearing it on his car radio, Bob Dylan immediately stopped driving, got out and banged on the bonnet. He was blown away, and a seed had been planted.

The Animals went on to have more great hits, including We Gotta Get Out of This Place and Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood. In May 1965 Alan Price left to go solo, citing personal and musical differences and a reluctance to fly while on tour. He formed The Alan Price Set, whose highlights include Simon Smith and His Amazing Dancing Bear. Dave Rowberry became his replacement, but by the end of the year the group were already falling apart. The history books are full of bands who got a raw deal due to mismanagement, but the Animals had suffered more than most.

In 1966 Burdon formed a new backing group and they became known as Eric Burdon & The Animals, adopting a harder psychedelic sound and relocating to California. He also formed the funk band War in the following decade.

Meanwhile, Chas Chandler became Jimi Hendrix’s manager and producer and was an integral part of his success, before doing the same with Slade in the 70s. He died in 1996, aged 57.

The original line-up of The Animals reformed in 1968, 1975 and 1983, and several different versions of the band using that name have existed over the years.

The Animals stood out in 1964 for refusing to play the game and adopt the Merseybeat approach. They didn’t turn on the charm, and they didn’t smile for the cameras. Another group were rising up the charts, and their fame would soon eclipse that of The Animals. The Rolling Stones were about to have their first number 1.

Written by: Traditional (arranged by Alan Price)

Producer: Mickie Most

Weeks at number 1: 1 (9-15 July)

Births:

Pocket cartoonist Matt Pritchett – 14 July

127. The Highwaymen – Michael (1961)

bd1085327da63fd5064146c180a48668.jpg

One of the more unexpected number 1s (at least, to modern ears) of 1961 was the result of the folk revival of the late 50s and early 60s. Acts such as The Kingston Trio offered a clean-cut, collegiate take on historical folk songs and presented them to mainstream audiences, and for a time, did very well. One such group were the Highwaymen, who went all the way to number 1 in the UK, US and Germany with Michael, their version of the African-American spiritual, Michael, Row the Boat Ashore.

Michael, Row the Boat Ashore was first recognised during the American Civil War at St Helena Island, one of South Carolina’s Sea Islands. It was sang by former slaves, known as freedmen, whose owners abandoned the island when the Union navy came to enforce a blockade. Abolitionist Charles Pickard Ware had come to supervise plantations on St Helena Island in 1862, and it was he that first wrote the song down in music notation.  It was first published in the influential collection Slave Songs of the United States in 1867, by Ware, his cousin William Francis Allen and Lucy McKim Garrison. According to Allen, the song refers to the River Jordan and the Archangel Michael, who is often referred to as a psychopomp. A psychopomp is an entity whose job it is to guide newly deceased souls to the afterlife.

The lyrics have changed many times over the years, but the most widely known version today came from Tony Saletan, who taught it to folk legend Pete Seeger in 1954, who in turn taught it to The Weavers. The success of this influential quartet, based in Greenwich City, was largely responsible for the folk revival.

The Highwaymen were first formed at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut. The five-piece consisted of lead singer and arranger Dave Fisher, who had sang in a doo-wop group at high school, plus Bob Burnett, Steve Butts, Chan Daniels and Steve Trott. I’m not sure the decision on the group’s name was a wise move, because pictures of the freshman quintet suggest the least scary bunch of highwaymen you’d ever be likely to meet.

These Highwaymen do produce a rather sweet, homely sound, though. Beginning and ending with a lonesome whistle from banjo player Butts, it’s a polite, faithful rendition, with some nice harmonies, as well as solo spots for each singer. Some voices pull these bits off better than others, though. I suspect some people who sent this to number 1 may not have been aware of the song’s origins, and may have just bought it because it sounded religious and has a memorable tune. Mandolin player and guitarist Trott, who later became a federal appeals court judge, believed the success of their version came down to the fact that Fisher had added some minor chords that weren’t in the song before.

Other versions of Michael were also around at the time, with Lonnie Donegan reaching number six, also in 1961, and Harry Belafonte in 1962, but it was The Highwaymen’s cover that sold millions. They followed it up with a cover of Lead Belly’s Cotton Fields, which also performed well.

However, most of the group wanted to continue to pursue academic achievements. Trott was the first to depart in 1962, and was replaced by Gil Robbins, the father of actor Tim Robbins. That line-up split in 1964, with only Fisher continuing with music and putting together a new version of the group, before moving to Hollywood to compose and arrange for film and television.

The original line-up, minus Daniels, who had died of pneumonia on 2 August 1975, reunited in 1987 to celebrate their 25th college reunion. In 1990 they threatened legal action against the country music supergroup of  Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash and Kris Kristofferson, who were also calling themselves The Highwaymen. The suit was dropped when wily old Nelson offered them a slot on stage as a warm-up act.

The group disbanded for good when Fisher died of bone marrow disease in 2010, aged 69. Burnett died a year later, leaving Trott and Butts as the only surviving members. The team behind This is Spinal Tap (1982) made an affectionate spoof of the collegiate folk scene in 2004. A Mighty Wind is well worth a watch.

Written by: Traditional

Producer: Dave Fisher

Weeks at number 1: 1 (12-18 October)