201. ‘I Got You Babe’, by Sonny & Cher

In which we meet a guy called Sonny and a gal called Cher. One of whom would go on to become a Republican politician; one of whom wouldn’t. I wonder which one it’ll be…?

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I Got You Babe, by Sonny & Cher (her 1st of four #1s)

2 weeks, from 26th August – 9th September 1965

Before all of that, their debut single. And what a way to get your careers started – with an international chart-topper. A song that’s still well known to this day. Ubiquitous, even. They say we’re young, And we don’t know, Won’t find out until we grow… Y’all know the rest. But, having listened to it several times now, I’m realising that it’s a very difficult record to define. Is it pop? Is it folk? Is it country? Is there a whiff of Phil Spector-esque Wall of Sound in there?

It’s a dense, textured record – lots of bells and tambourines and other slightly unusual sounding instruments that you don’t normally get in a pop song, chiming in along with a slightly droney rhythm. It’s Baroque pop – pop that incorporates classical elements. The Beach Boys, The Walker Brothers and The Beatles were all beginning to experiment with harpsichords and strings. Neither of which feature on ‘I Got You Babe’, though I think you can hear a French horn or two.

It’s a grown-up sounding pop record. A feature of 1965 so far through chart-toppers from The Righteous Brothers, Georgie Fame and so on, a further step away from simple Beat-pop. Except… lyrically, ‘I’ve Got You Babe’ is ultra-simple. They say our love won’t pay the rent, Before it’s earned our money’s all been spent… etc. etc. Culminating in Sonny’s lines in the bridge: I’ve got flowers, In the spring, I’ve got you, To wear my ring… It’s cutesy cutesy and a little hippy dippy. And the ending, where they list all the things that they have one another for – I’ve got you, To hold me tight… and so on, is a bit much.

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I have to admit, this has never been a song that I’ve loved. And writing this post hasn’t changed my mind. It’s too cute, too twee. Two teenagers in love, regardless of what the world thinks. Musically, yes, it’s another step forward but the lyrics are eighth-grade Valentine’s card level. And to call them teenagers isn’t strictly correct – Cher was nineteen when this hit the top, whereas Sonny was thirty…

What of Cher? There’s little going on here to suggest that she’s going to become one of the biggest female stars of the late twentieth century. She doesn’t even really sound like Cher yet. No autotune, maybe… The voice does come through in certain lines, though – rey-unt and spey-unt for example. She sounds a bit hesitant, a little shy, though she does deliver her lines in the bridge magnificently – You’re always aro-o-o-ound… and by the end she’s belting it out.

By the time we hear from her next, Cher will be stratospherically famous. But that won’t be for a while. A cover version of ‘I Got You Babe’, by UB40 and Chrissie Hynde, will top the charts before Cher appears there again. Meanwhile, Sonny Bono is the one who will go on to become the Republican politician (give yourself a round of applause if you guessed that right) before dying tragically in a skiing accident in 1998. They divorced as early as 1975, which kind of undermines the message of their only chart-topper together. ‘I Got You (Until We Split Up In a Decade) Babe’ doesn’t have quite the same ring to it.

200. ‘Help!’, by The Beatles

And it’s two hundred not out! Two hundred UK #1 singles covered; plenty more where they came from… And this isn’t a bad little record with which to celebrate our mini-milestone!

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Help!, by The Beatles (their 8th of seventeen #1s)

3 weeks, from 5th – 26th August 1965

Help! I need somebody! Help! Not just anybody! Help! You know I need someone! He-e-elp… It looks ridiculous written out like that, doesn’t it? If you told somebody that you were going to write a pop song with those as the introductory lines they would probably laugh at you. Then look nervously away… But, The Beatles were the some of the best producers of pop that the world has ever seen, and this may well be their best pop moment.

Or, you know, it might be ‘She Loves You’, or ‘Please Please Me’, or ‘I Saw Her Standing There’, or ten other of their songs… Let me rephrase. This may or may not be their best pure pop moment, but it is their last. ‘Help!’ is a bit of a step back, after the stoned haziness of ‘I Feel Fine’ and ‘Ticket to Ride’. This is the same Beatles that gave us ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ and ‘Can’t Buy Me Love’ – all floppy-haired enthusiasm and cheeky winks.

Except… listen to the lyrics. It’s an upbeat, summery pop song (from the soundtrack to their latest movie), but by God the words are bleak. When I was younger, So much younger than today, I never needed anybody’s help in any way… But now these days are gone, I’m not so self-assured… and Every now and then I feel so insecure, I know that I just need you like, I’ve never done before… do not your average pop song make. In the film, the cry for ‘help’ is from Ringo, who finds himself about to become the sacrificial victim of an Oriental cult (as you do…) In real life, the cry for help was John’s. His life, as the leader of the most popular band in the world, was getting to him.

I’ve never suffered from depression. But I know people who have, and the line: Help me if you can, I’m feeling down, And I do appreciate you being round… seems to be just about the most perfect description of the disease. The knowledge that nobody can really help you feel better; but that just knowing people are still around brings you some comfort. That’s it. Summed up in two perfect lines.

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Musically this is a short and simple song. But many of the best pop songs are. With The Beatles it’s often the small things that make their hits stand out over and above their contemporaries. The opening chord on ‘A Hard Day’s Night’, for example. On ‘Help!’, it’s the way that the backing singers’ lines (the countermelody, if you will) weave, and twist, and sometimes even precede the lead vocal. The Now I find… and the My independence… lines are the best examples. It’s the little touches like this that made the Fab Four peerless.

So, that’s it for the ‘pop’ Beatles. In 1966 they’ll stop performing live, smoke even more weed, start getting lost in India… all for another day. For now, press play on the link below and enjoy them as the mop-top Fabs for one last time. Plus, what with this being chart-topper #200, this seems like a good place to stop for a brief moment of reflection.

Chart-topper #1 – Al Martino’s pre-rock epic ‘Here in My Heart’ kicked it all off. It’s from another era – another planet – entirely. By the time we got to chart-topper #100 – Anthony Newley’s twee little ‘Do You Mind’ – we had traversed the rock ‘n’ roll era and were about to get stuck in the early-sixties slump of Elvis soundtrack songs and ‘death-discs’. And now here we are with #200. ‘Help!’ Perhaps the very final Beat-pop number-one. Experimental times lie ahead… I published chart-topper #1 at the end of January last year, to precisely zero interest, and so I’d like to say thank you to everyone who has since decided to join up for the journey. Your views, likes and comments sustain me! #100 was posted at the very start of November last year, and now here’s #200 at the end of August. A rate of a hundred every nine months. So… We should reach #300 by May 2020 (T.Rex, btw!) And which means we should reach the current UK number one (#1357) in about a decade… Hang on in there!

Remind yourself of all 200 of the first chart-toppers, here:

199. ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’, by The Byrds

Heading towards the big two zero zero, and our next record opens with a riff that every man and his dog has heard, probably more than once. File it alongside ‘Shakin’ All Over’ and ‘You Really Got Me’ as one of the most prominent riffs to have wound up at the top of the charts so far.

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Mr. Tambourine Man, by The Byrds (their 1st and only #1)

2 weeks, from 22nd July – 5th August 1965

But, unlike the two records I just mentioned, this isn’t an aggressive riff. There’s no lust here. It’s a riff that, instead, aims for the heart. It’s the musical equivalent of the sun streaming out from behind a cloud. And when the vocals kick in it only adds to the effect. Hey mister tambourine man, Play a song for me… I’m not sleepy and, There ain’t no place I’m goin’ to… Suddenly we’re in California, on a long stretch of golden sand, watching the surf break and the gulls soar…

Lyrically, too, we’re far from home. These are the most abstract, poetic lyrics we’ve heard in this countdown. ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’ is the only #1 so far to have an ‘Interpretations’ section to its Wikipedia page. Take me for a trip upon your magic swirling ship, Oh my senses have been stripped, And my hands can’t feel to grip… Not weird enough for you? How about the moment when you expect a chorus (I love the way they draw it out, prolong the pleasure, by adding this gorgeous bridge) but get an insistent plea: I’m ready to go anywhere, I’m ready for to fade, On to my own parade, Cast your dancin’ spell my way…

Huh. I think, you know, that they may be making some drug references there. Going for trips, and senses being stripped… It’s the summer of ’65, and counter-culture has arrived at the top of the UK singles charts. The sixties are really starting to swing. Groovy, baby!

It’s not just the lyrics that feel like something new, though. There’s the jingle-jangle guitars (referenced in the jingle-jangle morning lyric), the structure of the song – chorus, verse, verse, chorus – and the long, trippy fade-out. As with so many of our chart-toppers over the past two years, ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’ sounds like the stakes being raised. It’s the sound of pop music being pushed forward.

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It’s folk rock, but it’s a mile away from the couple of folk rock hits we’ve covered previously. The Highwaymen’s ‘Michael’ sounds like it was from another century – well, it was 1961 – while The Seekers sounded like they were merely playing at being folkies. The Byrds are the real deal. Who was the tambourine man? What was his ship? Does it matter? Just listen, and let yourself be swept away… Meanwhile, this song’s folk-rock credentials are helped massively by the fact it was written by a certain Robert Allen Zimmerman.

Bob Dylan will never (gasp!) top the singles charts as an artist. But this is the first of three #1s that he will enjoy as a composer. (I think it’s three… please correct me if I’m wrong… He has written an awful lot of songs…) Dylan’s version is, naturally, twice as long as this one – and it’s safe to say that The Byrds make it their own. He’s also gone on to deny that it’s in any way about drugs. So there you go.

‘Mr. Tambourine Man’ was The Byrds first hit in both the US and the UK – impressive considering they had only formed the year before. Following this, they were more successful in their homeland (‘Turn! Turn! Turn!’ hit the top there while it only reached #26 in Britain.) But even in the US their popularity didn’t last long. They were just too darn experimental, it seems, to maintain chart success. They went psychedelic, then Indian, then country, all the while changing members like most bands change socks… It couldn’t last; but their influence lingers on.

I’ve mentioned it many times before, but the vast majority of Merseybeat, R&B and rock groups that we’ve met since the Beat explosion have been British. Compare that to the fifties, when every rock ‘n’ roll hit, good or bad, was coming from across the Atlantic. Slowly but surely, though, the Americans are now staking their claim on the sixties. We’ve had some Motown, some Spector-patented Wall of Sound, and now some sun-drenched Californian folk-rock. There may not be too many US #1s at the moment; but when they do arrive, they’re golden.

198. ‘I’m Alive’, by The Hollies

Finally, after all the recent gospel, jazz and country, we’re back on track. This is more like it. This is what the sixties were meant to sound like…

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I’m Alive, by The Hollies (their 1st of two #1s)

1 week, from 24th June – 1st July / 2 weeks from 8th – 22nd July 1965 (3 weeks total)

This record is like a ‘Best of the Sixties’ compilation distilled down into a two and a half minute song. Let’s take it step by step… The intro is pure Merseybeat – light, chiming guitars – with a generous side order of Doo-Wop. Doo- doodoodoodoodoodoodoo… Then in comes in a husky, Lennon-ish voice: Did you ever see a man with no heart, Baby that was me… It’s all about a man who had never lived before, until his girl came along. It’s an upbeat and positive song. A song that puts you in a good mood. He’s alive!

The build-up to the chorus is very Beatles-y. Think a milder version of their ‘Twist and Shout’. Now I can breathe, I can see, I can touch, I can feel… Each line ascends ahead of the previous one, until the singer punches the chorus out: I never felt like this… I’m alive! I’m alive! I’m alive! End, and repeat.

Then the solo, which is a bit more hard hitting. Think tinny Kinks’ guitars with a bit of Stones swagger thrown in. And by the end, they’ve gone full on Who – with Keith Moon style drum fills and a frenetic rock-out to the end. Sprinkle the tiniest hint of psychedelica in the guitar reverb, and soupçon of Beach Boys in the backing vocals, and there you have it. I mentioned in recent posts that Jackie Trent and Sandie Shaw’s recent #1s were the most ‘sixties-sounding’ pop hits and now, well, I think we have the rock equivalent. We are slap-bang in the middle of the decade, and the sixties have never sounded sixtieser. It’s the perfect mix of old-style rock ‘n’ roll, Merseybeat and the newer, harder-edged rock. It’s a great little record.

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The Hollies were also, like so many of the bands that they sound like, from the north-east of England, and went through the same Cavern Club circuit as all their peers. Founded by Allan Clarke and Graham Nash (later of Crosby, Stills and Nash), they started out as an Everly Brothers style duo before adding a few more members. Their name is – as you may have guessed – a tribute to Buddy Holly. ‘I’m Alive’ was far from being their first hit; nor was it their last. They would go on to have Top 10s well into the seventies, and were the 9th biggest chart-act of the sixties. Not bad, considering that they were up against Elvis, Cliff, The Beatles, The Stones, The Kinks and more in that list.

And I have to admit that they are the one big sixties rock group that have passed me by. I know ‘Just One Look’ – another mid-decade pop classic – and ‘Stop Stop Stop’, as well as their later, mellower hits ‘He Ain’t Heavy…’ and ‘The Air That I Breathe’. But I should know more, and will explore their back-catalogue as soon as I’ve finished writing this post. ‘I’m Alive’ was their only UK #1* and that, given their chart longevity, feels like a surprise.

But, before you give delve into their Greatest Hits, give this record one more spin. A song that sounds like the love-child of every prominent sixties rock ‘n’ roll band, a record that faces both forward and back, a record that did a weird mid-summer’s dance with Elvis’s ‘Crying in the Chapel’ (Elvis was #1, then The Hollies, then Elvis, then The Hollies again) at the top of the charts. A classic, that almost slipped through the gaps.

*(My first ever footnote!) Actually, The Hollies will have one further UK chart-topper, with a re-release in precisely twenty-three and a bit years, for Miller-Lite based reasons that we’ll go into when we get there.

https://open.spotify.com/playlist/3sSYyPEUCTyMjMlN55z8SX?si=bb8dN5HuQtSgwGJDFDWTCQ

197. ‘Crying in the Chapel’, by Elvis Presley

Well, well, well. Look who’s back. The man with the most #1 singles ever (then and now), whose every release was once guaranteed several weeks at the top of the British pop charts, assumes his rightful place. Bow down to The King.

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Crying in the Chapel, by Elvis Presley (his 15th of twenty-one #1s)

1 week, from 17th – 24th June / 1 week from 1st – 8th July 1965 (2 weeks total)

He’s taken a break from his ever-diminishing run of lame movie-soundtracks, to get all holy on us. Elvis does gospel. You saw me crying in the chapel, The tears I shed were tears of joy… he croons, over a simple guitar strum – reminiscent of ‘Are You Lonesome Tonight?’ – and a tinkling piano – reminiscent of ‘Can’t Help Falling in Love’. I know the meaning of contentment, Now I’m happy with the Lord…

This is by far the most overtly religious chart-topper yet. In fact, the only others to have referenced The Almighty and his Gang were ‘Answer Me’, way back in 1953, and ‘Mary’s Boy Child’, from Christmas 1957. But this isn’t a preachy, buttoned-up number. This is Elvis we’re talking about, and he’s in his element. He whispers, he purrs, he croons, while the way he lowers his voice for the …just to sing and, Praise the Lord… line would get even the most pious of nuns a little hot under the collar.

No, Elvis is enjoying himself here. I once read a description – I can’t remember where – of Elvis’s gospel records as being sung as if ‘The King was trying to blow the pearly gates from their hinges’. You can imagine him striding up to God and asking him to make some room on the throne…. But not here. Elvis keeps it low-key on this disc. Actually, his vocals aside, it’s pretty dull. I always skipped this one back when I had his Greatest Hits on heavy rotation.

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But it is in keeping with what has been a very eclectic 1965. We’ve had ballads, country-pop, Latin soul, some cabaret-pop and some Phil Spector Wall of Sound gloss. And now some gospel. While it’s easy to say ‘well, only someone like Elvis could take this to #1’, bear in mind he hasn’t been drowning in hit records recently. This is his first chart-topper for two years; while he won’t reappear again until the 1970s. His recent hits before this one included ‘Bossa Nova Baby’ (#13) and ‘Do the Clam’ (#19). This record got to the top for reasons beyond Elvis’s fading star-power. Maybe it was Christian-power…? Church-goers heading out in force to get what is basically a hymn-in-disguise to the top of the charts? It worked for Cliff in the ‘80s and ‘90s…

It would also be remiss to suggest that Elvis was attempting some kind of reinvention here. He was always, in fairness, a deeply religious man, and had released his first gospel album, ‘His Hand in Mine’, years before. (‘Crying in the Chapel’ was actually recorded way back in 1960, but for some reason never saw the light of day until five years had passed.) He’d go on to release several more before his death, including the seminal ‘How Great Thou Art’ in 1967. Nope, it seems that this was simply one of his few gospel singles that caught on with the general public. It’s a million miles away from the swinging sixties, and you know what, that’s fine for a couple of weeks.

It’s interesting, looking at Elvis’s discography, to see how he seems to have been much more appreciated by British audiences come the mid-sixties. Between ‘Surrender’ in mid-1961, and now, he scored just one Billboard Hot 100 #1 – ‘Good Luck Charm’. Across the Atlantic he racked up seven, including this one. You can’t help but feel that Britain got this the wrong way around – all the early classics, your ‘Heartbreak Hotel’, ‘Hound Dog’ and ‘Don’t Be Cruel’, were US chart-toppers. Whereas in the UK we waited until the ‘Rock-a-Hula-Baby’ phase to go truly Elvis-mad. Definitive proof of this, if it were needed, can be found in the fact that the abominable ‘Wooden Heart’, a 6-week UK #1, didn’t see the light of day in the States. The Americans got that one spot on!

Follow along with my Spotify playlist:

196. ‘Long Live Love’, by Sandie Shaw

**Cue fanfare** For the first time since September 1956 (!) one female artist replaces another at the top of the UK charts. Isn’t it amazing to think that, of the 150 or so chart-topping singles since then, so few have been recorded by women.

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Long Live Love, by Sandie Shaw (her 2nd of three #1s)

3 weeks, from 27th May – 17th June 1965

Jackie Trent didn’t last long at the top – a solitary week is all she got – but our Sandie is back to stake a claim as the biggest female star of the decade. Her first #1 – ‘(There’s) Always Something There to Remind Me’ – was a slinky, sophisticated number. Her second is, well, more of the same.

Except ‘Long Live Love’ is perhaps a little more instant, a little catchier, a little jauntier… A swaying rhythm, a brass section, that ribbed instrument that you run a stick along, (you know the one you always got lumped with at Primary School when you couldn’t be trusted with a recorder, or a triangle…) It’s got a slight Copacabana Beach Bar vibe.

After the false start, that is. A guitar gently strums, Sandie’s voice comes through, as fun and flirty as ever: Venus must have heard my plea, She has sent someone, Along for me… And we’re off. Da-da-da-dada-dada-da-da… It’s an ode to the joys of simply being in love. Meeting each night at eight, not getting home till late… I say to myself each day, Baby oh long live love…

As with Jackie Trent before her, this is an uber sixties record. The sort of song you play over the opening credits of a TV show in order for the audience to instantly realise the time and place. And, also as with Jackie T, the lyrics – the overall meaning of the song – are pretty throwaway. She’s in love. She’s outrageously happy. The end.

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And there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s a catchy little pop song that shimmies along, over and out in two and a half minutes. In fact, it ends pretty abruptly, as if someone’s just pulled the plug and called it a day. Like I said, ‘Long Live Love’ is a simpler song than ‘(There’s) Always Something…’, it doesn’t have that Bacharach and David gloss, but I think I might prefer it. Sandie Shaw certainly liked it – she turned down ‘It’s Not Unusual’ in favour of it and also recorded a successful version in French. She was riding high, and we’ll meet her again before the decade is out.

I like almost everything about this record, except the title. I get what they were going for – it’s got that carefree sixties wordplay to it. But it’s kind of annoying. Like the sort of cutesy slogan a certain type of person would nowadays have stencilled on their living room wall…

Title aside… There may not have been many female led #1s in the sixties, but when they do come along they feel like a bit of an event. Think Shirley Bassey, Helen Shapiro, Cilla and now Sandie. They’re always classy, and well-polished – records that it feels like a lot of time and effort went into. Maybe they just stand out because it’s a woman singing, but I think there’s more to it than that. And the good news is we won’t have to wait too long until the next feminine vocals pop up on a #1 single, and they will be some legendary vocals indeed…

(Shock, horror! There is no YouTube link for the full, original version of ‘Long Live Love’ – so this is the best I can do. Listen on Spotify for the real version.)

195. ‘Where Are You Now (My Love)’, by Jackie Trent

We are now slap bang in the middle of the 1960s, and we’ve arrived at perhaps the most sixties-sounding song yet. It shimmers, it glistens, it drips… It’s absolutely drenched in the sixties.

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Where Are You Now (My Love), by Jackie Trent (her 1st and only #1)

1 week, from 20th – 27th May 1965

La…la-la-la-la-la… la-la-la-la-la… a cute little Latin-tinged rhythm, and a voice that is rich and honeyed. I like her voice. I want to listen to it some more. I want it to sing me to sleep. When shadows of evening gently fall, The mem’ry of you I soon, Recall… She sings properly, with a mildly posh way of stressing her words – a slight pre-rock throwback. I imagine this disc playing in a luxury New York apartment, overlooking Central Park at sunset, as a man dressed like an extra from ‘Mad Men’ pours a cocktail for a woman in a daringly short skirt and a beehive…

Then the chorus soars – as the chorus of every mid-sixties, female-led ballad simply must – with swirling violins and portentous drums. Where are you now, My love…? Where are you now, My love…? To be honest, I’m struggling to pay much attention to the lyrics. They are stock-lyrics, lyrics that exist because, well, a song needs them. This record is much more about the sound. About being a gorgeously identifiable moment in time. Listen closely… It’s the sixties…

It’s yet another grown-up pop song. That’s the theme of the first half of 1965: the more we move away from the simple Beat-pop ditties of Herman’s Hermits, Peter and Gordon and the like, the more mature everything is getting. The Righteous Brothers, The Moody Blues, Jackie Trent. I’m no songwriter, but ‘Where Are You Now (My Love)’ sounds like a complex song. Upon closer listen, it’s still a verse-verse-chorus-repeat then middle-eight kind of number. But it sounds complex, the way one section leads softly into the other, fading then rising.

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(Note that pretty much everywhere lists the song title as ‘Where Are You Now (My Love)’, except for on the disc itself…)

You could be forgiven for thinking that this is another Bacharach and David number – it’s just got that feel about it – but it’s not. It was written by Trent herself, with her song-writing partner Tony Hatch. Apparently it featured in a popular TV series of the time, ‘It’s Dark Outside’, the exposure from which saw the song reach #1. The pair wrote several other sixties hits, primarily for Petula Clark, but also for Sinatra, Shirley Bassey, Scott Walker, and more. You can’t get much more ‘cool sixties’ than that list of names… Come the seventies, though, and the hits were drying up for Trent, both as a performer and as a writer. She was reduced to writing songs for Stoke City, to celebrate their appearance in the League Cup Final. And that seemed to have been that…

Until the ‘80s when Trent and Hatch, by this point married, moved to Australia. Where they only bloody went and wrote the theme to ‘Neighbours’. Yes, the theme. Neighbours, Everybody needs good neighbours – played on British TV, twice a day for the past thirty-odd years. Given that no TV show – outside of X Factor, Pop Idol etc. – has contributed more to the pop charts over the years than ‘Neighbours’, it’s amazing to think that (with a slight stretch of the imagination) you can claim ‘Where Are You Now (My Love)’ as the first ‘Neighbours’ hit… twenty years before the pilot aired!

Jackie Trent then, ladies and gentlemen, who sadly passed away in 2015. Sit back, press play and enjoy her one and only UK #1 hit – her most famous song-that-isn’t-the-theme-to-an-Australian-soap-opera…

Follow along with every song below:

194. ‘King of the Road’, by Roger Miller

And now for something completely different… A hobo anthem. A paean to all the drifters, all the homeless floaters who sneak rides on dusty freight trains – no ties, no families, picking up a couple cents as they go… Sounds depressing? Well…

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King of the Road, by Roger Miller (his 1st and only #1)

1 week, from 13th – 20th May 1965

It’s not. Perhaps it should be; but it’s not. A groovy bass rhythm slinks in, fingers click… Trailer for sale or rent, Rooms to let fifty cents, No phone, no pool, no pets, I ain’t got no cigarettes… Add a lightly strummed guitar, and a saloon bar piano, and you pretty much have it. A simple song. A ditty.

The singer is a wanderer – one that’s happy with his lot. He finds jobs as he goes – two hours of pushing broom – and travels in the third box-car on the midnight train, where he’s friends with all the engineers. The references are very American: Bangor, Maine – union dues – old stogies… I think I know what they all mean… Why on earth this song hit #1, across the Atlantic, in the middle of the swinging sixties, is a mystery. The closest reference point I can think of for ‘King of the Road’ is Tennessee Ernie Ford’s similarly finger-clickin’ ‘Sixteen Tons’, from way back in January 1956.

But then again, why not? It’s a song that’s hard not to love. A song you know you must have heard somewhere before, with a hook that most people can sing from scratch: I’m a man of means by no means… King of the Road. I’ve listened to it several times now, and read the lyrics, and I still can’t work out if he means he’s king of the road despite having nothing, or if having nothing makes him king of the road… And it’s been a long day, so I’m not up to thinking that much more about it. It is what it is. Whatever it is.

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I can remember precisely how I heard ‘King of the Road’ – or a version of it – for the first time. There was a road safety ad they used to show during children’s TV in the nineties featuring two hedgehogs who crossed roads slowly and safely, looking both ways, thereby becoming – you guessed it – kings of the road. Happy memories. But… in doing a little more Roger Miller related research for this post I discovered that he impacted on my childhood in a much bigger way, without me ever realising. You see, Miller wrote and performed several of the songs for the 1973 Disney version of ‘Robin Hood’ (AKA Disney’s Most Underrated Animation) – a film I must have watched around a hundred and fifty six times between the ages of seven and ten, after taping it off the TV on a grainy old VHS. The second I read that, I could hear the same deep, gravelly voice from this record coming from a cartoon rooster, singing ‘Oo-De-Lally’, ‘Not in Nottingham’, and other early-Medieval classics.

Anyway, back in 1965, all that was still to come. For now, we’ll leave Mr. Miller at the fade-out –one of the longest fade-outs we’ve heard so far. The full final thirty seconds of this record is him repeating the first verse, mumbling as he wanders off, back on the road again. There he goes, a black silhouette against an orange setting sun, the dusty highway stretching out in front, a tumbleweed spinning slowly by… The King of the Road.

(The version of ‘King of the Road’ in this video may be a re-recording. It seems to be the only version available on YouTube. Spotify has both.)

193. ‘Ticket to Ride’, by The Beatles

In my post on the last Beatles’ chart-topper, ‘I Feel Fine’, I suggested that it announced the arrival of Beatles MK II. The cool Beatles. The detached Beatles. The stoner Beatles.

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Ticket to Ride, by The Beatles (their 7th of seventeen #1s)

3 weeks, from 22nd April – 13th May 1965

This, their seventh chart-topper in two years (!), is definitely mined from the same groove. It could even have been from the same recording session as ‘I Feel Fine’. The intro isn’t as scuzzy – the chiming guitars actually come across like a church bell on a Sunday morning – but that only lasts a second or two. Soon we lurch into a woozy, droney riff, with drums that roll, then thump, then disappear when you least expect. I’m no drummer, but am pretty sure that ‘Ticket to Ride’ should be produced as the first item of evidence when anyone claims Ringo couldn’t drum.

I think I’m gonna be sad, I think it’s today, Yeah…. The girl that’s drivin’ me mad, Is goin’ away, Yeah… Like most of the big Beatles hits, I grew up listening to this and could sing most of the words. But I’d never really noticed how desolate they were… She said that living with me, Was bringing her down… She would never be free, When I was around… Then how threatening they become: Before she gets to sayin’ goodbye, She oughta think twice, She oughta do right by me…  We’re a long way from ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’, Toto.

Going by those lines, it seems as if Lennon & McCartney had been taking notes from the Rolling Stone’s book of romance. It’s the same sort of bruised bravado that we’ve heard in ‘The Last Time’ and ‘It’s All Over Now’. And that’s not the only thing they’d noticed – the clanging, ominous guitars here sound very Stonesy. Except… the lead guitar is also very US folk-rock. Very Byrds-y. And the guitar lick that connects the bridge back to the verses is… a mini-metal solo. Like, seriously.

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‘Ticket to Ride’ is all about the details. Those drum-fills. That guitar lick. The chiming intro and the falsetto outro – My baby don’t care… – reminiscent of the way that they completely changed track for the last five seconds of ‘A Hard Day’s Night’. The Awww before the final She’s got a ticket to ride… It’s all about the details, because it’s an impossible record to categorise as a whole. It’s a beat-pop song at heart, but it’s also folksy, it’s heavy, it’s got bloody Indian sitar-sounding riffs thrown in…

I’m aware that this is going to be a very short post for a song of this stature. But we are seven songs into The Fab Four’s chart-topping run – there’s no need for an intro. And with ten more #1s to come from them we don’t need much of a postscript. I’ll leave you with a realisation that struck me midway through my sixth listen of ‘Ticket to Ride’… The Beatles were really, really good, weren’t they?

A playlist with all the #1s so far….

192. ‘The Minute You’re Gone’, by Cliff Richard

A fraction over two years since we last heard from him, Cliff’s back. What’s changed in his absence? Well… There’s been Merseybeat, for a start. The Beatles, The Pacemakers, The Searchers reinvented pop music, then The Animals and the Stones brought the blues and The Kinks brought the rock, and recently we’ve started going all jazzy, folky and a touch Baroque…

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The Minute You’re Gone, by Cliff Richard (his 8th of fourteen #1s)

1 week, from 15th – 22nd April 1965

So, has Cliff emerged from the most fertile and fast-moving period in popular music history, and taken anything from it? Has he borrowed a funky new sound from all those new kids on the block? Has he bollocks.

If anything he’s regressed. He sounded old-fashioned before; now he sounds positively pre-historic. For this latest chart-topper, Cliff’s gone… brace yourselves… country. Lilting guitars, a tinkling saloon-bar piano, backing singers last heard on a Frankie Laine record. That weird, uber-C & W whale-noise guitar in the background, last heard in ‘Rose Marie’. In 1955. ‘The Minute You’re Gone’ was recorded in Nashville, and it’s clear that Cliff dived whole-heartedly into the scene over there. I can imagine him buying his own Stetson and spurs just for the occasion, and throwing the odd ‘Howdy’ into conversation.

The minute you’re gone I cry, The minute you’re gone I die… To be honest, it took me several listens before I actually paid attention to the words… Before you walk out of sight, I’m like a child all alone at night… And I’m not sure it was worth bothering… I stare into emptiness… So on and so forth.

It’s not a terrible song. The chords are in the right place, there are verses, a bridge, a chorus… In the hands of a different singer I might have enjoyed this much more. The original singer, Sonny James, put a bit more OTT emotion into it. The very first UK chart-topper – the one and only Al Martino – lent it some of his customary gravitas. The only thing that stops Cliff’s version from finishing bottom of the ‘The Minute You’re Gone’ league table, is a sub-karaoke version by Irish grannies’ favourite Daniel O’Donnell.

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Back in 1963, I described the Mersybeat invasion as a comet that slammed into the musical landscape. A comet that killed off all the musical dinosaurs that had clogged up the charts of the early sixties. Only the very strongest would survive its sudden impact – Elvis, Roy Orbison, and Sir Cliff. Britain’s very own musical cockroach…

Harsh? A bit, maybe. It was an exaggeration to claim in my intro that Cliff had been ‘absent’ in recent years. He may not have scored a #1 since ‘Summer Holiday’, but every one of his singles, both with The Shadows and, like this one, without them, had gone Top 10. Don’t look at this record as a comeback; Cliff hadn’t been anywhere.

Who was buying his records, though? Surely not the same kids that were going wild for The Beatles and The Stones? Their mums, maybe? Their grans? I always complained about how seldom Cliff, Britain’s first rock ‘n’ roll star, actually rocked. Even as far back as his first chart-topper: the cheesy and insipid ‘Living Doll’. But maybe that was a masterstroke of foresight by him and his management. You can’t lose something you never had. Sell out from the very start…

Since starting this countdown, I’ve changed my opinion on many things. I now know that pre-rock music was far from boring, that Elvis didn’t actually invent sex, that ‘Rock Around the Clock’ didn’t open the floodgates, that instrumentals can actually be great… And yet I can’t say I’ve heard anything to convince me that Sir Clifford of Richard isn’t one of the blandest, squarest, middle-of-the-roadest artists in history…

Next!