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.

311. Nilsson – Without You (1972)

One of the earliest, finest power ballads, reaching number 1 in the 70s and 90s, Without You is a tune surrounded by tragedy. This version, by maverick singer-songwriter Nilsson, is the best.

Harry Edward Nilsson III, born in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn on 15 June 1941, came from a family of circus performers on his father’s side, who were known for their aerial ballet. His father walked out on the family when he was only three – which had a profound effect on Nilsson, becoming the subject matter of his songs 1941 and Daddy’s Song.

He grew up with his mother and younger half-sister. They were so poor, he took on a number of jobs from a young age, including a job at the Paramount Theatre in Los Angeles. Nilsson grew more and more interested in music, and it was his mechanic uncle that helped him on the way to becoming such a great singer. He formed an Everly Brothers-style duo with a friend. When the Paramount closed in 1960, he lied his way into a job working for a bank on their new computer system.

In 1962, Nilsson also got a job singing the demos of budding songwriter Scott Turner. He’d also started writing tunes himself, and in 1963 he co-wrote for Little Richard. Reportedly, upon hearing Nilsson sing, he exclaimed ‘My! You sing good for a white boy!’ the following year, he wrote three songs with Phil Spector.

Thanks to publisher Perry Botkin Jr, who invested his life savings into getting Nilsson the means to record four songs for Tower Records (a subsidiary of Capitol). This material was compiled into his debut album, Spotlight on Nilsson, released in 1966. That same year, he signed with RCA Victor and recorded Pandemonium Shadow Show (1967). This LP really showcased the potential of his voice and ability to cover other artists as well as his own material. His cover of The Beatles’ You Can’t Do That, in which he quoted 17 other songs by the Fab Four, caught the attention of their press officer Derek Taylor. Thanks to a major label behind him, and his songwriting duties for hot acts like The Monkees, Nilsson finally quit the bank.

Nilsson’s career went from strength to strength over the next few years critically and then commercially. His cover of Fred Neil’s Everybody’s Talkin’ first featured on 1968 album Aerial Ballet, before becoming a deserved hit a year later thanks to its inclusion in the film Midnight Cowboy. At the press conference in which The Beatles announced the formation of Apple Corp, John Lennon was asked the name of his favourite American singer, and Paul McCartney was asked his favourite American group. Both replied ‘Harry Nilsson’. Aerial Ballet also contained his original version of the melancholy One, later covered by Three Dog Night.

In 1970, Nilsson had become aware of a then-little-known songwriter called Randy Newman. He was so impressed, he made a whole album of his material, Nilsson Sings Newman, which helped get Newman recognised despite selling poorly. The following year Nilsson travelled to the UK to record Nilsson Schmilsson, his most famous work, which featured Without You by Badfinger.

The sad story of Badfinger is a cautionary tale of the pitfalls of the mercenary music business. One of the first signings to Apple Records, with the help of The Beatles they scored several hits. Without You, written by band members Pete Ham and Tom Evans. Their version had featured on 1970 album No Dice. It’s a decent stab, but a little unsure of itself, like a demo when compared to the covers that were to come, but then, Ham and Evans hadn’t realised the potential it had.

It had originally been two separate songs. Ham had written one called If It’s Love. He thought one of the verses had potential.

‘Well I can’t forget tomorrow
When I think of all my sorrow
I had you there but then I let you go
And now it’s only fair that I should let you know… if it’s love’

Meanwhile, Evans had a chorus for a song called I Can’t Live, which fitted well with Ham’s song. Combined, they finished Without You.

Recorded in London’s Trident Studios, Nilsson was backed by Apple alumni and Beatles collaborators. The man behind the haunting, plaintive piano was Gary Wright, who had appeared on George Harrison’s My Sweet Lord, Klaus Voorman of Plastic Ono Band took up bass, leading session drummer Jim Keltner was on drums and John Uribe played acoustic guitar. Strings and horns were arranged by Paul Buckmaster.

Although this sounds timeless now, nobody was producing power ballads quite like this in 1972, and although as a genre I’m more likely to laugh at them than truly appreciate them, Without You is a classic. You could argue these days that Nilsson is in effect using emotional blackmail to get his love to stay, but to argue that, you’d be ignoring such an impressively bleak, tortured performance. He sounds so tender at the start, his voice almost feminine as he remembers how she left him. It’s still an awe-inspiring performance, the way his voice shifts halfway through that first chorus. He’s a broken man, and by the final chorus… you just know that Nilsson knows how it feels to be so bereft. This is the difference between his version and Mariah Carey’s number 1 in 1994. Yes, she hits all the notes and it’s technically great, but hard to believe in. It’s also a great production by Perry, classy, and not too overblown. Unlike many power ballads, it’s succinct. It doesn’t outstay its welcome.

Nilsson quickly followed up his hit album with Son of Schmilsson, but he had begun to ignore Perry’s advice and lost fans with the use of swearing in his songs. He did however write another UK number 1 – David Cassidy topped the charts with his cover of The Puppy Song in 1973.

Nilsson was going through a divorce at the time, which made him the perfect drinking companion for Lennon, separated from Yoko Ono and in the midst of his ‘lost weekend’ with May Pang. They became close friends, raising hell and gaining the wrong kind of press for incidents like being thrown out of a Smothers Brothers show. They managed to get it together enough to make an uneven album together, Pussy Cats in 1974, featuring a killer cover of Many Rivers to Cross.

Three years later, Nilsson readied what he considered his best work Knnillssonn. RCA agreed and promised a big promo campaign, but the death of Elvis Presley threw a spanner in the works. However they did release a greatest hits without his permission, so he left the label.

In 1978, Nilsson, along with the world, was shocked to discover The Who’s Keith Moon was found dead in the London flat he rented out. This in itself was terrible news, but the fact that Cass Elliott of The Mamas & the Papas had died in the very same room in 1974, was too much to take. He sold the flat to Pete Townshend and spent all his time in LA from then on.

Nilsson’s output grew more sporadic as the 80s began. His soundtrack for Robert Altman’s Popeye (1980) did as well as the disappointing film, and he was left reeling from the murder of his friend Lennon in December. Nilsson never toured or performed at big concerts, but the death caused him to make more public appearances to give his opinions on gun control in the US. In the mid-80s he returned to the studio, becoming mainly involved in writing music for film and TV through his new production company Hawkeye. Sadly, the project floundered and it was discovered his financial adviser had embezzled Nilsson of all his earnings. He was left close to bankruptcy, while she served less than two years in prison.

Nilsson was born with congenital heart problems, and when he suffered a heart attack in 1993, he knew the writing was on the wall. Years of heavy boozing and smoking will also have taken its toll. He pressed RCA to release a box set of his work, and tried to make one last album, but had only recorded vocal tracks when he died of heart failure on 15 January 1994, aged only 52. The album was finally released in November 2019 as Losst and Founnd. A gifted singer and songwriter, who did things the way he wanted (and one could argue he created the first remix album with 1971’s Aerial Pandemonium Ballet) Nilsson is remembered fondly.

One of the most famous stories attached to Without You is of course the horrible fate of both its songwriters. Following Nilsson’s cover, the future looked bright for Ham and Evans, who were awarded the 1972 Ivor Novello Award for Best Song Musically and Lyrically. However, it was to be their last hit. When Apple folded in 1973, the group became mired in legal disputes thanks to manager Stan Polley. They were left in limbo and without money coming in, and Ham was showing signs of mental illness. On 23 April 1975, Ham’s body was found hanging in his garage studio, with a suicide note that ended ‘P.S. Stan Polley is a soulless bastard’.

After this tragedy, Evans and guitarist Joey Molland spent years trying in vain to recapture Badfinger’s magic, often amid blazing rows. The money issues only got worse, and Evans then became caught up in royalty rows with Molland, drummer Mike Gibbins and their first manager Bill Collins. Following a particularly nasty argument between Molland and Evans, the songwriter’s body was found at his home on 19 November 1983. He too had hung himself.

If you like your cover versions twisted and harrowing, and if any song deserves that, it’s this one, I’d suggest cult singer-songwriter Bobby Conn’s from 2000, which you can enjoy here.

Written by: Pete Ham & Tom Evans

Producer: Richard Perry

Weeks at number 1: 5 (11 March-14 April)

Births:

Franz Ferdinand singer Alexander Kapranos – 20 March
Actor Nick Frost – 28 March

Deaths:

Photographer Tony Ray-Jones – 13 March
Violinist David McCallum Sr – 21 March
Film producer J Arthur Rank – 29 March

Meanwhile…

21 March: Chancellor Anthony Barber announced a £1,200,000,000 tax reduction in the Budget.

26 March: The UK’s last trolleybus system, in Bradford, was closed.

30 March: The Parliament of Northern Ireland was suspended.

31 March: A large CND demonstration was held protesting against the nuclear base at Aldermaston.

1 April : William Whitelaw was appointed as the first Northern Ireland Secretary.

6 April: Motoring giant Ford launched new flagship saloon model, the Granada, which replaced the Zephyr, to be produced in Dagenham.

11 April: BBC Radio 4 launched long-running parodic panel show I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue. The ‘antidote to panel games’ still entertains to this day.