226. The Beach Boys – Good Vibrations (1966)

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We’re nearly at the end of 1966 now, and it’s been great to hear the quality, innovation and strength of so many brilliant number 1 singles. Like 1965, at times it’s been classic after classic. I envy anyone who was young and into pop at the time, it must have been incredible. We may well already be at the peak year of the number 1 singles from 1952 to the present day. And there’s one more classic to cover. One of the best, in fact. There’s certainly an argument that Good Vibrations by the Beach Boys is the high watermark in pop invention. How did they get to this point?

Brian Wilson was born 20 June 1942 in California. Growing up in Hawthorne, by the time he was 16 he was sharing a bedroom with his brothers Dennis (13) and Carl (11). Their father Murry was a pianist, and his appreciation of music rubbed off on his sons, in particular Brian, who would teach his brothers how to sing harmonies. The elder Wilson’s life changed forever that year when he received a reel-to-reel tape recorder for his birthday. Soon he was recording he, his mother Audree Neva and Carl singing, and overdubbing himself on piano, along with Carl and their neighbour David Marks on guitars. Brian began to write songs and through family gatherings got to know his cousin, Mike Love. While attending Hawthorne High School, the duo got to know Al Jardine, and before long the trio, along with Carl and Dennis (who was always the most reluctant to join in), had formed the Pendletones, with a tough taskmaster in Murry as their manager.

Dennis may not have been too fussed about the Pendletones, but it was he who suggested Brian write songs about surfing, as he was the only avid surfer in the group. Brian came up with Surfin’ and he and Love wrote Surfin’ Safari together. The former became their first single, on Candix Records in November 1961. The label wanted to call them the Surfers, but that name had been taken, so they dubbed them the Beach Boys. The release was so successful, Candix couldn’t cope and were made bankrupt, and that New Year’s Eve, the Beach Boys played their first gig.

Six months later they signed with Capitol Records and Surfin’ Safari was their new single and title track of their debut album, released in October. Jardine left the group to become a dentist, to be replaced by Marks.

1963 may have been the year of Beatlemania in the UK, but the Beach Boys were a US phenomenon once third single Surfin’ USA hit the top ten. The album of the same name swiftly followed and they were away. Brian started to begin showing an interest in the studio, choosing to double track their vocals to beef up the sound. The Beach Boys may have seemed like a one-trick pony at the time with their sun-kissed hymns to the surf, but they were certainly prolific, releasing two more albums that year – Surfer Girl and Little Deuce Coupe, and Christmas single Little Saint Nick. Jardine returned, and Marks left a few months later.

1964 was a transitional year, and the British Invasion was a big reason for this. Suddenly surf music was out of fashion. The fact they were signed to the same label as the Beach Boys in the US won’t have helped either. Brian was rattled, and wasn’t as keen on the Fab Four back then, preferring the complex production skills of Phil Spector. Murry was sacked, and Brian hit back with I Get Around, which became their first US number 1. The album that followed, All Summer Long, was meant as a goodbye to the surf sound of old, and the instrumentation was becoming more exotic. The Beach Boys’ Christmas Album rounded off the year, but Brian’s mental state was deteriorating.

1965 began with Wilson announcing his retirement from touring after an anxiety attack. He was replaced by Glenn Campbell, and instead he would concentrate on songwriting and production. This coincided with him developing an interest in drugs. Next album, The Beach Boys Today! in March, featured uptempo tracks on side one, and ballads on two. Brian’s lyrics were now focusing on his neuroses and insecurities. California Girls and Help Me Rhonda featured on Summer Days (And Summer Nights!!). At the end of the year, their live-in-the-studio album Beach Boys’ Party! featured their hit cover of Barbara Ann, and standalone single The Little Girl I Once Knew showcased where they were headed next – Pet Sounds.

Their most famous album, with words from jingle writer Tony Asher, raised the bar both sonically and lyrically, and contained some of their greatest songs – some of the most beautiful songs of all time in fact – namely Wouldn’t It Be Nice, Don’t Talk (Put Your Head on My Shoulder) and especially God Only Knows. A song so good, some friends and I named our club night after it, and some guy called Paul McCartney called it the greatest song of all time. Pet Sounds was released in May 1966, and Brian Wilson was now being hailed as a genius. What the public didn’t know was that he was already at work on a single like no other.

Good Vibrations was inspired by his mother. Andree would talk to Brian about vibrations when he was a child, and it would both fascinate and frighten him at the same time. He played what became the chorus to Asher on the piano to see if he could add some lyrics, but his ideas were discarded. He did however manage to steer Wilson away from calling it Good Vibes, wisely suggesting that ‘Vibrations’ wouldn’t date. Van Dyke Parks, who worked on the ill-fated SMiLE album, was also asked, but declined. Although the track was still in its formative stages, Brian knew he wanted an Electro-Theremin from its early stages. It’s not a true theremin as such – the instrument is controlled by a knob, rather than hovering your hand over it to produce that brilliant sound.

At the time, Good Vibrations was the most expensive song ever produced. Unusually, Brian Wilson crafted a single song as though he was working on a whole album, recording fragments of the track here and there, without an overall idea of how the song would even finsh up. Work began in February, with a full instrumental version finished in March. But it was very different to the finished version, and sounded like a funky R’n’B version. For instrumentation, the Beach Boys used members of the famed Wrecking Crew session musicians, who had already played on many number 1s, with more to come.

Work was paused for a spell while Wilson finished up producing Pet Sounds, and he returned to the single in April. At times, the nervous, sensitive Brian wondered what he was doing, and considered either letting Wilson Pickett record it or abandoning the song altogether, but was persuaded by his friend David Anderle to commit to it being the band’s next single. Understandably, some other Beach Boys members were reticent too, and worried that Brian’s ditching of accessibility would result in a resounding flop.

Normally I’d have put money on Mike Love being the most ardent critic, because, as we all know, Love has proven himself to be a dick on many occasions. However, Love was spot on in recognising that this ‘pocket symphony’, as their new press spokesman Derek Taylor (who also worked for the Beatles) called it, could have real appeal to the rising hippy movement. The lyrics he crafted were perfect.

Indeed, you can slate Love all you like, but that opening couplet, sung by Carl Wilson (Dennis was supposed to be main vocalist but fell ill with laryngitis so Carl stepped in), is spine-tingling. ‘I, I love the colourful clothes she wears/And the way the sunlight plays upon her hair’ sets the tone and, combined with the organ notes, you just know that you’re going to hear something really special. By playing with psychedelic imagery that matches the sound, yet grounding its theme in a love song, he makes the track appeal to everyone – no mean feat, as the track goes off on weird tangents like no hit single ever had. Also central to the tune’s brilliance is that wonderful, classic Beach Boys chorus. The Electro-Theremin still adds an electricity to the track, but those vocals, led by Love’s bass vocal, hark back to all their early surf songs.

At 1.41 you get the first tape splice. Some say it’s, by today’s standards, rather primitive, but not me. Suddenly, we’re in unchartered territory, and the tune loosens up and trips out as Love sings ‘I don’t know where but she sends me there’ over magical sounds made by cellos, organs, sleigh bells – so much is thrown into the mix it’s hard to really know.

Then, my favourite section. At 2.13, just when you think the track may revert to the chorus or a verse, everything comes to a halt, save for a maraca and low organ. We’re a long, long way from the orchestral ballads of the early 50s, from rock’n’roll, from Beatlemania, from everything. This could have caused the song to completely cave in, but Wilson times everything perfectly. Eventually the vocals kick in again, but it stays low key, with a harmonica joining in. And then, as we approach the three-minute mark, we get a blissful ‘aaaaah!’ and the chorus finally returns. Love the cello sound we hear soon afterwards – I’m a sucker for cellos.

Then, just as we think this symphony could go absolutely anywhere, the song fades out abruptly, and all too soon. That’s my only issue with Good Vibrations, that end fade. Well, that, and I love the extra, wordless vocal you get before the final chorus on some versions, and left in the new version Wilson included on Brian Wilson Presents SMiLE, released in 2004. That remake is an interesting listen, incidentally. I’m not sure if it’s due to the fall-out with Love, but Wilson opted for very different lyrics in the verses. They’re good, and the remake is very good in general, but they don’t beat Love’s.

You could argue that Brian Wilson paid the price with Good Vibrations and the aborted SMiLE, and was never the same again. But his loss was our gain, and how. All pathways were now open. The Beach Boys were on a creative par with the Beatles, and so began a psychedelic friendly war between the two groups that would result in Wilson losing his mind.

Written by: Brian Wilson & Mike Love

Producer: Brian Wilson

Weeks at number 1: 2 (17-30 November)

224. Jim Reeves – Distant Drums (1966)

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At 9.15am on 21 October in the mining village of Aberfan in Glamorgan, South Wales, pupils at Pantglas Junior School were just beginning their lessons. A large colliery spoil tip, high up on a mountain slope behind the village, suddenly turned into a slurry due to a period of heavy rain beforehand. Within five minutes, the slurry had engulfed the school, along with nearby houses and a farm. This tragic event resulted in the horrific deaths of 116 children and 28 adults. The TV footage of the incident makes for surreal, grim viewing.

That autumn had seen the singles chart ruled for 5 weeks by a man who had died two years previous. American country singer-songwriter Jim Reeves ruled over the charts with Distant Drums in the same surprising way that Ken Dodd had a year previous with Tears. Amid all the amazing, pioneering music coming thick and fast, the charts were suddenly owned by the old folk once more.

‘Gentleman Jim’ had been born in Galloway, Texas in August 1923. Known as Travis during his childhood, he loved to play baseball and spent three years in minor leagues before severing his sciatic nerve. As a sufferer of sciatica myself, I can only imagine this must have been really bloody painful.

Reeves avoided World War Two when he failed his physical exam in 1943, and so he began working as a radio announcer. A fan of popular singers like Frank Sinatra, Jimmie Rodgers and Bing Crosby, he would sometimes sing live in-between songs, and began to see a career in it.

By the early 1950s Reeves was doing well in the US charts. Bimbo reached number 1 in the country chart in 1954. His first and only album release for Abbott Records, Jim Reeves Sings, came in November 1955. By that point he had signed a ten-year deal with RCA Victor with Steve Sholes. That same year, Sholes signed Elvis Presley.

Like every other country and western performer of the era, Reeves’ earliest recordings had him adopting a loud, rather cliched Texan style, but over time he developed his trademark style, a smooth, warm and gentle baritone, his lips nearly touching the mic as he crooned. RCA executives thought this was a bad idea, but Reeves was lucky to have producer Chet Atkins on his side. The first example of this new approach, Four Walls, was a commercial hit for Reeves in 1957. Soon, other artists were adopting the same approach, and this gentle approach, together with lush arrangements, became known as the Nashville Sound.

As the 60s began Reeves scored big in the pop and country charts with He’ll Have to Go. From here on in his stature grew enormously worldwide, eclipsing his fame in the US, even. He was more popular than label mate Elvis in South Africa. Among his hits in the UK in 1963 was Welcome to My World, used in recent years in adverts for Thomson Holidays.

In an eerie foreshadowing of what was to come, the singer’s final session for RCA resulted in three songs – Make the World Go Away, Missing You and Is It Really Over? With tape left over, they cut one more track – I Can’t Stop Loving You, which had been a number 1 for Ray Charles in 1962.

On 31 July Reeves and his manager Dean Manuel (also the pianist in Reeves’ backing group, the Blue Boys) were flying over Brentwood, Tennessee when they encountered a violent thunderstorm. Two days later, after intense searching by friends including Marty Robbins, the wreckage was found, and by the afternoon, Gentleman Jim’s death was announced publicly.

Material by Reeves continued to be released after his untimely death, aged 40. Distant Drums was a song by country singer and dancer Cindy Walker. It had been recorded by Roy Orbison in 1963, but it is Reeves’ version that is remembered best.

So just how did Distant Drums not only make it to number 1, but hold court for five weeks? It’s really hard to say. It seems RCA had chosen to release it due to creeping anti-war sentiment over the situation in Vietnam, but I’m not sure you could describe it as an explicit protest song. Even if it was, surely there were more commercial examples of such a thing out there? The fact he was two years dead already means it wasn’t due to the strength of feeling after he was gone, either.

To be fair to Reeves, he never intended it as a single – it was merely meant as a demo, and had been tarted up with an orchestral backing. But lord, is it dull. I’m no country fan anyway, but it’s a B-side or album track at best. I’ve read that perhaps so many young bands were jockeying for the top spot at the time, Reeves’ single split the vote, but who knows? It’s another one of those chart mysteries.

On the final day of Distant Drums‘ number 1 reign, former chart-topper Alma Cogan, whose Dreamboat was number 1 in 1955, died of ovarian cancer aged only 34.

Written by: Cindy Walker

Producer: Chet Atkins

Weeks at number 1: 5 (22 September-26 October)

Births:

Prime Minister David Cameron – 9 October 
Footballer Tony Adams – 10 October

Deaths:

Singer Alma Cogan – 26 October 

219. Georgie Fame and the Blue Flames – Get Away (1966)

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After coming out on top in their group, England’s World Cup winning ways continued in the knockout stages. On 23 July they defeated Argentina at Wembley Stadium thanks to a goal in the last 15 minutes from Geoff Hurst. Three days later, two goals from Bobby Charlton against Portugal, also at Wembley, saw England secure their place in the final. Their opponents were to be West Germany, who had defeated the Soviet Union 2-1 the previous day.

At number 1 that week were jazz and R’n’B group Georgie Fame and the Blue Flames. Since their previous number 1, Yeh Yeh in January 1965, the group had released three singles. In the Meantime, Like We Used to Be and Something didn’t make it into the top 20. Fame, real name Clive Powell, wrote Get Away to be used in a television advertisement for National petrol. Four years since Cliff Richard and the Shadows’ Summer Holiday, this was a more swinging, hip way of celebrating British summertime, and with the World Cup ongoing, all eyes were on England. Its release proved timely.

Set to an upbeat acoustic guitar, Fame’s gravelly but chipper vocal and chiming brass, Get Away is one of the lesser-known number 1s of the 60s, and is certainly not a classic like the recent Paperback Writer or Sunny Afternoon. That’s not to say it’s a bad track, and I’d imagine it worked very well as an advert jingle., but it rather outstays its welcome as a single. The lyric ‘Don’t mind the weather girl’ proved prescient, as although we like to imagine the summer of 66 was always glorious, in reality July was wet and dull most of the time.

Georgie Fame and the Blue Flames released two more singles that year, making the top 20 with Sunny and Sitting in the Park. They released third album Sweet Things (featuring new drummer Mitch Mitchell, only a year away from joining the Jimi Hendrix Experience) and shortly after, Fame made the decision to sign with CBS and become a solo artist. He would have one more number 1.

In the 70s, Get Away (which was also known as Getaway due to misprints on records) found further life as the theme tune to a long-running travel show in Australia called, you guessed it, Getaway.

Written by: Clive Powell

Producer: Denny Cordell

Weeks at number 1: 1 (21-27 July)

Births:

Politician Diana Johnson – 25 July 

216. Frank Sinatra – Strangers in the Night (1966)

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On 6 June, Johnny Speight’s long-running sitcom Till Death Us Do Part was first transmitted on BBC One. Starring Warren Mitchell as the bigoted Alf Garnett, it ran well into the 1970s, with a spin-off, In Sickness and in Health, beginning in the 80s.

Returning to number 1 for the first time in 12 years (easily the longest gap up to this point) was Frank Sinatra, with one of his least favourite songs that is nevertheless one of his most famous, Strangers in the Night. When I wrote about his 1954 single Three Coins in the Fountain, I neglected to trace Ol’ Blue Eyes backstory properly, only going back to earlier in the 50s. Let’s go further back this time.

Francis Albert Sinatra was born on 12 December 1915 in Hoboken, New Jersey, the only child of Italians ‘Dolly’ and ‘Marty’ Sinatra. Delivered via forceps, Sinatra was born with a perforated eardrum and severe scarring on his left cheek, neck and ear. A skinny child with bad acne, he was given tough love by his parents, and some biographers claim she abused him in his youth. His father was an illiterate boxer. Frank became interested in jazz music from a young age, and his idol was Bing Crosby. His uncle bought him a ukelele when he was 15, and he would entertain his family. Expelled from high school in 1931 for being rowdy, he took on several odd jobs and would sing for free on local radio stations. Sinatra never learnt to read music properly, and would do so by ear only.

In 1935 his mother persuaded him to join local singers the 3 Flashes. He worshipped them, but they only let him join because he had a car. Renamed the Hoboken Four, they won first prize on a local radio talent show, and Sinatra became their lead singer, provoking jealousy due to the attention he received from girls. By 1939 he was working as a singing waiter when he joined the Harry James Band as their singer, and it was with them that he released his first record, From the Bottom of My Heart. He then moved on to the Tommy Dorsey Band. Dorsey became Sinatra’s father figure, and he would learn and copy his mannerisms, and asked him to be godfather to his daughter Nancy, born in 1940.

For the next two years his popularity grew with each recording, and he pushed Dorsey to let him make music under his own name. He became obsessed with the idea of overtaking Crosby as a star, and following a legal battle he left the group. According to some newspaper reports, Sinatra’s mobster godfather had to hold a gun to Dorsey’s head in order to persuade him.

In 1943 Sinatra signed with Colombia, and Sinatramania was in full swing. It was around this time he became known as ‘The Voice’. His fame eclipsed Crosby and he would entertain US troops during World War Two. His first album, The Voice of Frank Sinatra, was released in 1946.

As the 40s became the 50s, he suffered a career slump, thanks in part to his divorce, Mafia connections, departure from Colombia and rejection from Hollywood, but an Oscar-winning role in From Here to Eternity kickstarted his comeback. In 1953 he also signed with Capitol Records and began releasing some of his most acclaimed albums over the next few years, including Songs for Young Lovers in 1954, 1955’s In the Wee Small Hours and Songs for Swingin’ Lovers! in 1956. The title track to 1958’s Come Fly with Me became one of his best-known tracks. By the end of the decade the leader of the Rat Pack was so famous he was invited to be Master of Ceremonies at a dinner for Soviet Union President Nikita Krushchev.

In 1960, in order to give himself and other performers more artistic freedom, a discontented Sinatra left Capitol to form Reprise Records and began working with Quincy Jones in addition to his usual collaborator Nelson Riddle. By the time he turned 50 in 1965 he was immensely popular once more, performing with Rat Pack pals Sammy Davis Jr and Dean Martin at The Frank Sinatra Spectacular, transmitted live to movie theatres across the US. It Was a Very Good Year (which earned him a Grammy Award) and That’s Life, both very popular singles, showcased a reflective side to Ol’ Blue Eyes.

Which brings us to Strangers in the Night. Several men have claimed ownership over the years, but it’s still Bert Kaempfert’s name on the credits. The German conductor had connections to music’s biggest stars, having co-written Elvis Presley’s awful Wooden Heart, and it was he that hired the Beatles to back Tony Sheridan on his album My Bonnie. The melody to Strangers in the Night was originally called Beddy Bye and was used a part of the instrumental score to the comedy A Man Could Get Killed (1966). English lyrics came from Charles Singleton and Eddie Snyder, and one of the film’s stars, Melina Mercouri, was supposed to get first crack at it, but she declined. Sinatra’s version was recorded on 11 April, a month before work began on the rest of the album, and among the personnel were Wrecking Crew drummer Hal Blaine and future star Glenn Campbell on rhythm guitar.

Despite its success, Sinatra not only disliked Strangers in the Night, he seemingly spent the rest of his career running it down. So why record it? Well, he needed a hit single. His albums were selling well, but singles were more important to the industry in 1966. He called it ‘a piece of shit’ when it was first played to him, but then he heard his rival Jack Jones had recorded it, and he was determined to outperform him in the charts. ‘The Voice’ was on cruise control during the recording, and as the track was about to fade, he performed the famous scat ‘dooby dooby doo’ etc. This was probably a sign of how little he regarded the song, but it became famous, and even inspired the name of the crime-fighting dog Scooby-Doo.

My opinion of Strangers in the Night lies somewhere inbetween popular opinion and Frank. It’s a nice melody, and its better than his first number 1, but he also recorded many better songs down the years. I guess a large part of its popularity may lie in the romance of the lyrics. The idea of two strangers falling in love upon first sight in the dark and then staying together all their lives is enduring.

It’s fair enough if Ol’ Blue Eyes didn’t like the song, but the homophobia he displayed at the time can’t help but spoil any enjoyment I might have. He apparently thought it was about ‘two fags in a bar’, and in a concert in Jerusalem in 1975 he changed the lyrics to ‘love was just a glance away, a lonesome pair of pants away’. Not only that, he believed Campbell was giving him the eye during the recording and insulted him. His disdain didn’t fade over the years either. When he introduced it at a concert in the Dominican Republic in 1982 he called it ‘the worst fucking song I’ve ever heard’

Nonetheless, it did the job at the time and spent three weeks at the top, and the album of the same name was one of his biggest sellers. Not bad going for ‘a piece of shit’.

Written by: Bert Kaempfert/Charles Singleton & Eddie Snyder (English lyrics)

Producer: Jimmy Bowen

Weeks at number 1: 3 (2-22 June)

Births:

Playwright Mark Ravenhill – 7 June
Actor Samuel West – 19 June 
Rally driver Michael Park – 22 June 

212. The Spencer Davis Group – Somebody Help Me (1966)

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By 1966, London was established as the coolest capital in the world, and it was on 15 April that Time magazine ran a pop-art cover featuring the city, with the phrase ‘LONDON: The Swinging City’. Inside it stated ‘In a decade dominated by youth, London has burst into bloom. It swings; it is the scene’. With the World Cup soon to take place, this was a great time to be in England. The Moors Murders still cast a great shadow over all this positivity though. Ian Brady and Myra Hindley’s trial for three deaths began on 19 April at Chester Crown Court.

The Spencer Davis Group were at number 1 again for the last time. Sticking firmly to the formula that saw them shoot to the top with the classic Keep on Running, they borrowed another song from reggae singer-songwriter Jackie Edwards, who was signed to their producer Chris Blackwell’s Island Records.

Edwards’ original was more like Northern Soul than reggae, and a decent stab at it. However, the Spencer Davis Group made it sound as similar to their previous number 1 as is possible. Winwood’s voice was as great as ever (hearing him singing ‘When I was just/A little boy of seventeen’ is pretty amusing as he must have been that age roughly at the time), and there’s some occasional interesting guitar sounds from Davis, but there’s no way this would have been top of the pops if it had been released before Keep on Running. In 2003 it found new life when it became the theme tune to the long-running ITV drama The Royal, a medical drama set in the 60s.

Better songs were to follow. Both Gimme Some Lovin’ and I’m a Man were much more deserving of number 1 status, and they started to make progress in the US. In 1966 the group had also starred in their own film. The Ghost Goes Gear, also starring Nicholas Parsons, saw the Spencer Davis Group staying in the haunted childhood home of their manager. This sounds awfully amazing but seems to have been lost in the mist of time sadly.

In 1967 Steve and Muff Winwood decided to leave the band. Steve formed Traffic, adopting a more psychedelic sound and co-writing the excellent Paper Sun and Hole in My Shoe (later recorded by Neil from The Young Ones). He also played the organ on Voodoo Chile on the Jimi Hendrix Experience’s Electric Ladyland (1968), before forming the short-lived supergroup Blind Faith with his pal Eric Clapton, Ginger Baker and Ric Grech. His singing on the haunting Can’t Find My Way Home is particularly beautiful. After briefly reforming Traffic, he resurfaced as a solo artist in the late 70s, and found pop fame once more with the hit single Higher Love in 1986. He still occasionally releases new material, and his daughter Lily is now a singer.

His brother, Muff, went to work as an A&R man for Island Records, before becoming an executive for CBS Records. He produced Sparks’ hit This Town Ain’t Big Enough for Both of Us and was also responsible for signing several big names, including Prefab Sprout, Shakin’ Stevens and Sade.

The Spencer Davis Group soldiered on without the Winwoods, and actually briefly worked alongside Traffic on the soundtrack to Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush. After several line-up changes, with Davis the only original member left, they split in 1969. They reformed several times over, and confusingly still exist in two different formations, one in Europe and one in the US. Will he form a third after Brexit?

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Producer: Chris Blackwell

Weeks at number 1: 2 (14-27 April)

Births:

Model Samantha Fox – 15 April

Deaths:

Cricketer Tich Freeman – 28 January 

106. The Shadows – Apache (1960)

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From 25 August to 11 September 1960, Great Britain and Northern Ireland competed in the Olympics, held in Rome. It wasn’t a great performance, with only two gold medals, six silver and 12 bronze brought home. On the same day, Cliff Richard and the Shadows were deposed from the top of the charts by… the Shadows (with a cameo from Cliff). This unusual turn of events came about because the Shadows had a recording contract separate to their one as a backing band for the UK’s most popular artist at the time. Their instrumental, Apache, is of course one of the most memorable and evocative pre-Beatles UK singles, and catapulted them to super-stardom, making Hank Marvin, Bruce Welch, Jet Harris and Tony Meeham the first backing band to step out of the shadows (sorry) and become as popular as their frontman.

As previously stated in my blogs for Living Doll and Travellin’ Light, the Shadows were originally known as the Drifters, and none of the original line-up remained by 1960. When Cliff recorded his first hit, the influential Move It, the band consisted of founder Ken Pavey, Terry Smart, Norman Mitham and Ian Samwell. Samwell had written Move It, but only he and Smart were allowed to play on the recording, and that had taken some persuasion. By the time of the recording of Living Doll, the famous line-up was in place. Hank Marvin, the guitar wizard and most well-known band member, had been hired partly due to his Buddy Holly-style spectacles. Originally, Tony Sheridan, who later recorded My Bonnie with the Beatles, had been in the frame. Jet Harris had christened the group the Shadows just before their second number 1,  Travellin’ Light. The four-piece had released a few of their own singles, but none made it to the charts, until they struck gold with Apache.

Singer-songwriter Jerry Lordan’s tune I’ve Waited So Long had been a hit for Anthony Newley in 1959, and his biggest solo hit, Who Could Be Bluer?, was produced by George Martin, and performing well when Lordan was supporting the Shadows early in 1960. He had been watching the 1954 western Apache, starring Burt Lancaster, and was inspired to write an instrumental on his ukelele. He presented the tune to the Shadows on the tour bus. The influential guitarist Burt Weedon had recorded a version, yet to be released, but Lordan wasn’t a fan, and figured the Shadows could make a better job of it. He wasn’t wrong.

Apache begins with foreboding beats, achieved by none other than Cliff himself, banging away on a Chinese drum. This was the first time Cliff had sounded dangerous since Move It. And it certainly makes for a more effective sound than the impressions of Indians that feature on Johnny Preston’s Running Bear. That famous, hazy surf guitar sound that then enters and really makes Apache came about when cockney singer Joe Brown gave away his echo chamber to Hank Marvin, who played around with it and the tremolo arm of his Fender Stratocaster. You can laugh at how nice and polite the Shadows used to look now, with their funny little choreographed walk and beaming faces, but Apache is a hell of a performance, sounding dangerous, modern, and very cool, as well as achieving what Lordan wanted from the track  – namely something that brought to mind the drama, courage and savagery of the Indians in Burt Lancaster’s film. Although the spotlight falls on Marvin, this is a group performance, and the other three really shine too.

Bizarrely, Norrie Paramor, who usually had a great ear for a hit and had produced plenty of chart-toppers, wasn’t that keen at first, and neither were their record label. Paramor preferred The Quatermasster’s Stores, but admitted at 40 he was perhaps growing out-of-touch, and let his teenage daughter decide. She picked ‘the Indian one’, and Apache slowly creeped to number 1 for five weeks, inspiring countless guitarists. Cliff was gracious and found the idea of being usurped by his own band amusing, and no bad blood resulted.

Of course, Apache went further than influencing rock’n’roll. Michael Viner’s Incredible Bongo Band, a project started by MGM executive Viner, released the album Bongo Rock in 1973. The second track was a fantastic cover of Apache, featuring a now legendary drum break by Jim Gordon, formerly of Derek and the Dimons. That breakbeat became as ubiquitous to hip-hop as James Brown’s Funky Drummer, appearing in early DJ sets by pioneers such as Afrika Bambaataa and Grandmaster Flash. You’ll recognise it from the Sugarhill Gang’s fun version of Apache, from Grandmaster Flash’s The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel (both 1981), and the West Street Mob’s Break Dance (Electric Boogie) (1983), and they’re just the obvious ones. Why is Gordon not recognised for this contribution to modern music? Perhaps because in 1983, he murdered his mother during a psychotic episode. In fact, yes, I’m certain that’s why.

On 15 September, while Apache was still chopping down all competition, an evil scourge began stalking the streets of London, and life for motorists was never the same again. The dreaded traffic wardens were here, for good.

Written by: Jerry Lordan

Producer: Norrie Paramor

Weeks at number 1: 5 (25 August-28 September)

Births:

Actor Hugh Grant – 9 September
Actor Colin Firth – 10 September
Actor Danny John-Jules – 16 September
Race car driver Damon Hill – 17 September 

Deaths:

Actress Amy Veness – 22 September
Suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst – 27 September 

66. Jerry Lee Lewis – Great Balls of Fire (1958)

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1958’s charts began with a bang like never before. The simplicity and energy that rock’n’roll brought to popular music is perhaps never better showcased than in this song – one of the best number 1s of the decade, if not, THE best. The only number 1 with an intro to rival it to date had been Rock Around the Clock, but Great Balls of Fire has aged better. Not only did conflicted wildman Jerry Lee Lewis bring the piano to the forefront for the first time, attacking it with the same reckless abandon that Jimi Hendrix later did with the guitar, he also made the subject of sex overt. Yes, there had been hints creeping in, but Great Balls of Fire is pure lust – a subject matter that Lewis wrestled with, and proved to be his downfall.

Lewis was born into a poor family living in Ferriday, Concordia ParishLouisiana in 1935. He loved playing the piano from an early age, so much so that his parents mortgaged their farm to buy him one. He became influenced by fellow musical family members, The Great American Songbook and Hank Williams. In an early sign of Lewis’s waywardness, his mother enrolled him in Southwest Bible Institute, where she hoped he would begin performing evangelical numbers. Lewis was expelled for playing boogie-woogie versions. Rock’n’roll was growing in popularity, and was the perfect home for Lewis, who travelled to Memphis Tennessee to audition for Sun Records, home to Elvis Presley, in November 1956. He passed and began recording his own material as well as assisting greats such as Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash. Recordings exist of the three of them jamming with Elvis from that December. Two months later, Lewis recorded his classic version of Whole Lot of Shakin’ Going On, which rightly shot him to fame. His raucous live performances were also making him a force to be reckoned with. He had originally knocked his piano bench over by mistake, but the audience loved it, so it set Lewis free to run riot on his instrument, pounding the keys, climbing on top of it and totally changing the image of pianists forever.

Great Balls of Fire had originally been written by singer-songwriter Jack Hammer. He had submitted it to Paul Case, who was working on the music film Jamboree (1957). Case didn’t like the song, but loved the title. He went to Otis Blackwell, an established hitmaker who had written Elvis’s All Shook Up, and struck a deal whereby he and Hammer would split the royalties. Despite Lewis’s burgeoning reputation as a hellraiser, he was a devout Christian, and he struggled with the premise of this next single, which was as racy as music got back then. Initially, he refused to perform it, asking Sun Records boss Sam Phillips, ‘How can the devil save souls?’ However, as the recording session went on, alcohol, and subsequently the devil, won out. Not only did he loosen up enough to take control of the number, leering away at the vocals and treating his piano like a whore, he is heard on bootleg tapes saying ‘I would like to eat a little pussy if I had some’. Quite the turnaround…

Nobody, not even Elvis, would have been able to make Great Balls of Fire the way Lewis did. It fitted his wild image like a glove. Unfortunately, Lewis’s reckless ways may have helped make him, but they also broke him. Four months after he hit number 1 in the UK, he toured the country. Three concerts in, a reporter discovered that Lewis’s third wife (he was only 22) was Myra Gale Brown – his first cousin, once removed. This was newsworthy enough, but Myra was only 13. Shocking stuff, obviously, and Lewis’s career never recovered.

I have to admit to being puzzled by Lewis’s marriage scandal. The 1950s are always remembered as a time of conservatism, yet, and I may be betraying some ignorance of the law back then, how come he wasn’t imprisoned? How come Sun Records kept him on? In today’s climate, post-Weinstein and Savile, Jerry Lee Lewis would have been completely finished, and deservedly so. He’s still recording songs to this day, and still trades on his bad-boy image (his 2010 album was called Mean Old Man).

I’d always liked Great Balls of Fire, but listening to it for this blog, in the context of other 1950s number 1s, made me respect it even more. It’s truly pioneering. And yet, it also raised (and not for the last time) the decidedly dodgy subject of enjoying art by morally questionable artists. Gary Glitter also had number 1s, and is reviled, as well he should be, yet other musicians with a dubious sexual history are still considered heroes. Where should we draw the line? I’m not sure I have the answer.

Written by: Otis Blackwell & Jack Hammer

Producer: Sam Phillips

Weeks at number 1: 2 (10-23 January)

31. Perez ‘Prez’ Prado & His Orchestra, the King of Mambo – Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White (1955)

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As mentioned in my blog for Mambo Italiano, the US and UK were going through something of a mambo craze in 1955. Rosemary Clooney’s tune (with the Mellomen) was a very successful attempt to cash in on this phenomenon, but it was a novelty song. Bandleader Perez Prado was the real deal, though, and the craze was largely due to his success with songs such as Mambo No 5 at the start of the decade. Yes, that’s the song that Lou Bega remade in 1999, and then reworked by none other than Bob the Builder in 2001.

Born in Cuba, he moved to Mexico in 1949 and began his recording career there. He quickly ascended to the top of the mambo scene, developing trademark grunts as he powered his way through fiery, sometimes raunchy tunes. His first hit, Mambo Jambo, appeared a year later. Also in 1950, Spanish-born French composer Louiguy, the man behind the melody of Edith Piaf’s La Vie en Rose, wrote Cerisier Rose et Pommier Blanc. This Latin jazz composition translated as Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White. Lyrics were written in French by Jacques Larue, and English by Mack David, but Prado decided to record it as an instrumental, and it is this version that first went to number 1 in the UK, on 29 April, after its appearance in the movie Underwater!. starring Jane Russell, who dances to it in a famous scene.

Prado’s version has a great, memorable opening, with a powerful brass blast before trumpeter Billy Regis performs a lazy drawl on his instrument (this is probably a strange way to describe it but it’s the best I can think of) and then the sultry rhythm takes hold. It’s easy to see why mambo was popular in the UK. Compared to number 1s by Vera Lynn and David Whitfield, this is exciting and exotic. The low horn sound that crops up from time to time is probably the weirdest noise to appear in the charts so far. It’s so deep it almost sounds alien and electronic. The most enjoyable number 1 so far, and the only one to get a reaction from my two-year-old.

Other acts wanted in on the mambo craze, and ‘Man with the Golden Trumpet’ Eddie Calvert’s inferior cover of this track also went to number 1 a few weeks later. It remains Prado’s only number 1, but he continued to enjoy success around the world for years to come. He died in 1989, aged 72, but his music has lived on, and aged very well. In addition to the remakes of Mambo No.5, his track Guaglione was used in a famous advert for Guinness in 1995, which is where I first came across his work. And despite never seeing Underwater!Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White sounds very familiar to me, and I’m certain it’s been used on TV, so if anyone can tell me where, please do!

Written by: Louiguy 

Producer: Herman Diaz

Weeks at number 1: 2 (29 April-12 May)

Births:

Singer Hazel O’Connor – 16 May 

Deaths:

Cricketer Gilbert Jessop – 11 May 

13. Frankie Laine with Paul Weston & His Orchestra – Hey Joe (1953)

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1953 was definitely Frankie Laine’s year. He dominated the singles chart in a way nobody else has since. His record-breaking dominance with I Believe was proof of this enough, but there was more to come. On 23 October, his cover of Hey Joe ended the dominance of Guy Mitchell’s Look at That Girl. A week later, his next number 1, Answer Me, entered the charts. With four songs in a chart that only consisted of twelve singles back then, it’s doubtful that anyone else will ever have a third of all songs in the chart in any given week ever again.

Sadly, Hey Joe isn’t the legendary track covered by, among others, The Jimi Hendrix Experience. It was a country music track written by Boudleaux Bryant for Carl Smith, and had been a bestseller on the US country music chart for eight weeks. It was Bryant’s first notable achievement, and four years later he and his wife Felice would begin a run of hits for the Everly Brothers, including Bye Bye Love and All I Have to Do Is Dream. Hey Joe hasn’t aged as well as those future pop classics.

Frankie Laine’s cover, backed by Paul Weston & His Orchestra, certainly tries its best, and obviously its success suggests it worked with record buyers back then. Like Look at That Girl, it features a quite effective guitar solo, and the brass works well, but the lyrics are nauseating. Some cowboy is jealous of Joe’s gal, and he’s decided he’s going to take her for his own.

‘Hey Joe
She’s got skin that’s creamy dreamy
Eyes that look so lovey dovey
Lips as red as cherry berry wine’

Ugh. By the end of the song, he’s telling Joe that, though they might be friends to the end, the end is nigh as his passion for her is all-consuming. If Joe had any sense he’d shoot this annoying ex-friend of his first while he’s describing her in that patronising way of his. Although Laine characteristically performs the tune with gusto, his vocal styling makes it worse, stretching certain words out past the point of no return. No doubt the popularity of westerns in the 1950s, and Laine in general, would have helped Hey Joe no end.

During Hey Joe‘s fortnight at the top, The Samaritans phone counselling service began. Vicar Chad Varah officially set it up in London on 2 November, but had been inspired years earlier while at a funeral for a poor 14-year-old girl who had committed suicide in the belief she had an STD. She was in fact only menstruating. This troubled Varah to the extent he advertised for volunteers at his church to help people contemplating suicide, and The Daily Mirror came up with the name for the fledgling support group in their headline a month later for an article highlighting Varah’s work. Varah stayed with the Samaritans until 2004.

Written by: Boudleaux Bryant

Producer: Mitch Miller

Weeks at number 1: 2 (23 October-5 November)

Births:

Actor Peter Firth – 27 October