231. ‘Somethin’ Stupid’, by Nancy Sinatra & Frank Sinatra

We are still stuck in the seventh circle of easy-listening hell, it seems. In calendar terms, it’s now getting on for a good half-year of dullness…

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Somethin’ Stupid, by Nancy Sinatra (her 2nd and final #1) & Frank Sinatra (his 3rd and final #1)

2 weeks, from 13th – 27th April 1967

And I have to admit that I thought this latest chart-topper would be better. It’s a song I know, one that’s ingrained in popular culture, and one which had a second wind thanks to a certain ex-Take That singer and an Australian actress when I was at high-school, but one that I’d never really paid much attention to.

The main problem with it, I think, is that Frank and Nancy both sound pretty bored. I know I stand in line until you think you have the time to spend an evening with me… Strings swirl and Latin guitars strum, much like they did in Petula Clark’s ‘This Is My Song’. And if we go someplace to dance I know that there’s a chance you won’t be leaving with me… It’s a wordy song, and the lines are well constructed – the alliteration in the see it in your eyes you still despise the same old lies… one is great, to give credit where it’s due. And the hook of ‘I love you’ being a stupid thing to say is cute.

But beyond that I’m left feeling a bit underwhelmed. Especially remembering how fierce Nancy sounded on ‘These Boots…’, and knowing the swagger that Frank was capable of. Both recorded far, far better songs in their careers. Perhaps they felt they had to meet in the middle, cancelling one another out. It certainly sounds like they’re holding back.

Or maybe they’re just feeling uncomfortable singing, as father and daughter, a duet clearly written for a pair of lovers… I mean, it could, maybe, be seen as song in which the father is lamenting how little time his kid spends with him… I practise every day to find some clever lines to say to make the meaning come true… That could speak of a strained inter-generational relationship, right? Of course, lines like The time is right, Your perfume fills my head… would be more difficult to sell in that way… Nancy has, apparently, gone on record to say she thinks it’s sweet that people refer to this as ‘The Incest Song.’

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By the end we have some very-sixties horns thrown into the mix, and the pair are mumbling I love you… over the fade-out. It doesn’t end with a bang. It’s not the worst disc from our half-year of easy-listening (hello, Engelbert), but it’s not the best either (hello, Petula). It’s a shame that both Nancy and Frank are bowing out of their chart-topping careers with this slice of meh.

Perhaps the big problem with this duet – and this has just come to me – is that it’s not a duet. They sing each and every line together. A duet should have a bit more give and take, call and response, you know? Nancy especially is relegated to little more than breathy backing vocalist here. Anyway, she was about to go on to make some of the best recordings of her career, with a more suitable partner: Lee Hazlewood. Here’s a link to their version of ‘Jackson’, proving that boy could she pull off a duet, under the right circumstances.

And what of her dad? A star since the late 1930s, now into his fifties. One of the legendary figures of 20th Century popular music. He isn’t very well-represented by his three UK chart-toppers, to be honest. The bland and now forgotten ‘Three Coins in the Fountain’, the much more famous, but hated by Frank himself, ‘Strangers in the Night’, and now this limp duet with his daughter. But he wasn’t done yet. In a couple of years he will record the biggest hit of his whole career, ‘My Way’, and he’ll go on scoring Top 10s through to his version of ‘New York, New York’ in 1979, aged sixty-four. If only that could have been his final chart-topper… They were still playing that as the ‘lights-up’ song in nightclubs when I was a kid!

230. ‘Release Me’, by Engelbert Humperdinck

An unassuming intro leads us, soft and gentle, into a swaying lullaby of a latest chart-topper. Please release me, Let me go, For I don’t love you, Anymore…

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Release Me, by Engelbert Humperdinck (his 1st of two #1s)

6 weeks, from 2nd March – 13th April 1967

Sigh. What has happened to the charts in recent weeks? We’ve gone from the pinnacle of the swinging sixties to the easy-listening doldrums… Jim Reeves, Tom Jones, Petula Clark (who’s fab, but still…) and now this. A new level of schmaltz.

I have found a new love dear… And I will always want her near… The one redeeming thing about this record is that it’s not a love song. It should be; but it’s really a break-up plea. Which gives it a slightly OTT, unintentionally comic feel. Especially with lines like Her lips are warm while yours are cold… (Ouch!) Such is the strength of the plea, I’m assuming he’s singing to his wife, and needs a divorce. Otherwise, why doesn’t he just dump her…? Or is he just too much of a gentleman to do a caddish thing like that?

When the backing singers come in, it really is a step too far. So let’s tune out for a moment, and focus on the most interesting thing about this record (apart from the singer’s name, but we’ll get to that in a bit.) ‘Release Me’, famously, held The Beatles’ ‘Penny Lane’ / ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ double-‘A’ off the top-spot. For a fortnight, one of the most innovative and respected pop singles ever was outsold by just one disc. Engelbert’s.

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He turns it up a notch or two for the final chorus. We move from crooning to belting. He gives the final So….. some real welly. It goes without saying that, yes, he sings it well. I feel I’ve written that quite a lot recently. And frankly, it’s not enough to save this one. It’s like saying that a footballer kicks a ball well. He’s still got to find the goal! And the slow pace and pure blandness of this record means it’s one that bobbles well wide of the post.

Unlike ‘This Is My Song’, which just sounded old, ‘Release Me’ was a (fairly) old song. First written and released in 1949, and given the treatment by Patti Page, The Everly Brothers and Dean Martin among others. It goes without saying that Humperdinck’s version is the best-known. It was, inevitably, the highest-selling single of 1967.

And what of the elephant in the room? That name. Engelbert Humperdinck was a stage name, his real one being Arnold Dorsey. But, amazingly, it is an actual name. Engelbert Humperdinck I was a German composer from the turn of the century. Humperdinck II just wholesale borrowed the name – which seems cheeky to me. He was managed by the same guy as Tom Jones, and ‘Release Me’ was his breakthrough hit. His post-sixties career is pretty interesting, but I’ll hold off on the full bio as, joy of joys, he has another huge chart-topper coming up shortly…

Follow along with this handy playlist:

229. ‘This Is My Song’, by Petula Clark

This next #1 has an intro that really sets a scene. A laundry-strung alley in old Napoli. Candles. Red-chequered tablecloth. The strings flutter. The guitar is lightly-plucked. When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza-pie…

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This Is My Song, by Petula Clark (her 2nd and final #1)

2 weeks, from 16th February – 2nd March 1967

Nope. Wrong song. This one goes: Why is my heart so light, Why are the stars so bright…? Questions, questions. I’m sure you’ve already guessed why. Why is the sky so blue, Since the hour I met you…? Petula’s in love. And so she runs through various clichés: Flowers are smiling, stars are shining… We know we’re getting a big ol’ chorus, but she builds up to it very slowly, keeping us waiting… I know why the world is smiling… It hears the same old story, Through all eternity…

Finally it comes. Love… This is my song… It’s a chorus made for movie-soundtracks. It’s outrageously cheesy, but undeniable. Don’t try to argue with it. Just let yourself get swept along by it. The world, Cannot be wrong, If in this world, There is you… It’s timeless stuff. By the solo, with its Bierfest horn section, I’m sold. I love it. Here is a song, My serenade to you…

Of the last six chart-toppers, half could be described as sentimental schmaltz. ‘Distant Drums’, ‘The Green, Green Grass of Home’, and now this. But ‘This Is My Song’ is different. I’m not sure how, but it is. Somewhere in there, buried deep in the swaying, woozy rhythm, the spirit of the sixties remains. Somehow, it manages to be quite sexy, in amongst all the cheese…

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I may be biased. Petula Clark was one of my first true loves, ever since ‘I Couldn’t Live Without Your Love’ – to which ‘This Is My Song’ was the follow-up – featured on a ‘60s Hits cassette on heavy-rotation in my parents’ car. Not that I listen to her very often now, but… This is a woman who was a child star – a ‘singing sweetheart’ and mascot to WWII troops, whose hit first records were released in the 1940s, who first charted alongside the likes of Vera Lynn and Doris Day, whose two #1s – ‘Sailor’ and this – bookend the swinging sixties, who caused scandal in the USA by (gasp!) touching Harry Belafonte on the arm, who is as comfortable singing in French, German or Italian as she is in English, and who still performs to this day, aged eighty-six! (She’s currently playing in ‘Mary Poppins’ in the West End.) She is, to apply an over-used but in this case completely appropriate term, a legend.

Meanwhile, the story of this record is almost as interesting. It is not, though it sounds it, based on an old Neapolitan folk tune. It had been written just the year before, for the soundtrack of the film ‘A Countess From Hong Kong’, by one Charlie Chaplin. Yep, that Charlie Chaplin. The film was set in the thirties, and so Chaplin wanted a song that would invoke the sound of that time. I’d say he managed it. To give it that period finish, he also wanted Al Jolson to record it. Except – small problem – Jolson had died in1950. So, he asked Petula Clark to record it instead. Clark, apparently, hated the lyrics…

Anyway, I enjoyed that. And if you didn’t enjoy this one, if you thought it was just a bit too much, too overblown and old-fashioned, just you wait till you hear what’s up next…

228. ‘I’m a Believer’, by The Monkees

We leap into 1967 grins and cheeky winks all round. Hey, hey… It’s The Monkees!

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I’m a Believer, by The Monkees (their 1st and only #1)

4 weeks, from 19th January – 16th February 1967

Wham: The organ riff intro. Bam: The guitar lick. This is a record that doesn’t hang around. I thought love was only true in fairy tales, Meant for someone else, But not for me… And then, less than thirty seconds in, we hit the chorus. It feels quick, even though it’s a regular two and a half minute song. Or maybe it feels like boxes are being ticked. Check, check, check. We got ourselves a hit record.

It’s hard to write about The Monkees – and I say that as someone who knows very little about them – without resorting to the clichés. The first manufactured boy-band. They didn’t write their own songs (This one was written by Neil Diamond, no less.) They couldn’t really play their guitars! The TV series. ‘An American rip-off of The Beatles’. All stuff that has passed into pop-culture legend. You can’t help but picture them running goofily along a beach. But, and I hope that this has become apparent as this blog has gone on, I’m no music snob. A good song is a good song, no matter who it was recorded by. And ‘I’m a Believer’ is ‘A Good Song’. It’s an ear-worm. You don’t switch stations when it comes on the radio.

The chorus especially, hits all the right spots. Then I saw her face, Now I’m a believer, Not a trace, Of doubt in my mind… Then the Mmmmhhh… And the perfect hook of rhyming ‘believer’ with ‘couldn’t leave her.’ Yes, the verses are a bit basic: ‘pain’ and ‘rain, and so on. And the topic is love. Or, not love. Lust. But not lust. It’s a song about the general concept of love, with a smudge of lust, for kids who don’t know yet what those feelings are. And it’s not a Beatles ‘rip-off’. Not quite. It’s definitely influenced by the Beat sound, especially the guitar licks between the verses. But the most Beatles thing about The Monkees were their haircuts. It’s a disc that ends on a high too, with that great Yayayayayaay!

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‘I’m a Believer’ feels like a moment. The fact that it’s the first #1 of a new year, maybe. Something’s shifting. Is this perhaps the first ‘pop song’? Hear me out… Up to now pop music has been jazz, and swing, and rock ‘n’ roll, R & B, and rock. All those sounds have been popular. But this. This is a song written with the single purpose of being popular. Of promoting a group of young men and forcing them into the hearts, and onto the bedroom walls, of girls aged between nine and, say, fourteen.

What I mean to say is that The Monkees are taking the sound of the mid-sixties: Beat pop mixed with folk and R&B, on the cusp of flower-power, and diluting it into pure pop. But, of course, that’s been happening for years. Paul Anka’s ‘Diana’ was diluted rock ‘n’ roll. Helen Shapiro’s ‘You Don’t Know’ was diluted jazz. The Four Pennies ‘Juliet’ was diluted Merseybeat. I’ve just answered my own question, then. This is not the first ‘pop song’. This isn’t anything new. It’s just a next step in The Evolution of Pop.

I’ll stop before I disappear any further into my own mind. This is a post on ‘I’m a Believer’; not a philosophical dissertation. But it is The Monkees’ one and only appearance on this countdown and so I did need to cram it all in. Anyway, a quick glance at their discography on Wikipedia shows just how much of a monster hit ‘I’m a Believer’ was: #1 across the world, from Australia, to Germany, to Canada. And, like all the best boy-bands, they burned out pretty quickly. Though not before they left us with some great pop songs: ‘Last Train to Clarksville’, ‘Daydream Believer’, ‘Pleasant Valley Sunday’… And one I had never heard of before starting this post, but which may be my new favourite-ever song title: ‘Randy Scouse Git’ (released, perhaps unsurprisingly, as ‘Alternate Title’ in the UK.)

Listen to every #1 so far in this playlist:

227. ‘The Green, Green Grass of Home’, by Tom Jones

It’s become a bit of theme recently – every so often we take a pause from pop music’s race into the future to enjoy a good, old-fashioned ballad. First with Ken Dodd, then Jim Reeves, and now Tom from the Valleys.

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Green, Green Grass of Home, by Tom Jones (his 2nd of three #1s)

7 weeks, from 1st December 1966 – 19th January 1967

A soft, swaying intro precedes a tale of a man returning home, from a long time away. The old home town looks the same, As I step down from the train… And doesn’t Tom sing it well? There’s something in the Welsh waters… Why are they such good singers? Why is it Welsh Male Voice choirs, and not Geordie Male Voice choirs?

He runs towards his long-lost love, Mary: Hair of gold, And lips like cherries… And then he heads home: There’s that old oak tree, That I used to play on… It’s a heart-warming song for Christmas. One for all the family. Yes, it’s good to touch, The green green grass of home… Like most Tom Jones songs, it helps if you’re a bit drunk. I love the saloon-bar piano, that really adds a ‘last-call’ vibe. And, also like most Tom Jones songs, it’s a karaoke classic. Not quite ‘Delilah’, but getting there.

I love a song that tells a story, verse by verse. Just where has this man been all this time…? And ‘Green, Green Grass of Home’, like all good stories, has one hell of a twist. We break for a spoken-word interlude, in which the singer reveals that it was all a dream. And, who’s that? Why it’s the guard… And there’s a sad, old padre, On and on we’ll walk at daybreak, Again I’ll touch, The green green grass of home… Yep, plot twist: he’s getting executed.

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I love it. Either he’s been wrongfully convicted, which only increases the power of the earlier verses, or you’ve spent the last two minutes sympathising with a murderer. The little piano riff to end is this song’s version of a ‘badoom-tish.’ And I’m similarly in two minds about this record as a whole. On the one hand, it’s mawkish, sentimental mush. On the other, it’s a great one for belting out in the shower.

And to be fair, this was a mega-hit. Seven weeks at #1 is longer than any record in the past three and a half-years, since The Beatles’ ‘From Me to You’. And, as I mentioned earlier, I doubt that this disc being released over the festive season hurt its chances. The idea of a ‘Christmas Number One’ wasn’t really a thing this early in the charts, but I do wonder if the success of ‘Green, Green Grass of Home’ set the tone for later, similarly saccharine, festive hits.

As for Sir Tom, similar to his first #1, ‘It’s Not Unusual, I think we have to look at him as existing separately from his chart contemporaries. His other big sixties hits included ‘What’s New Pussycat?’ and ‘Help Yourself’ – nothing baroquey or folky, or Beat-poppy about them. But… If you’re never in fashion you’ll never be out of fashion. Maybe it’s this refusal to follow trends that’s allowed him all his comebacks: his Prince covers in the eighties, and his huge resurgence when I was in high-school. Looking back, how on earth did a near sixty-year old man singing ‘Sex Bomb’ become such a thing…? And he will hit the top-spot once more, briefly, in forty-two years’ time. Which, unsurprisingly, is by far the biggest gap between #1 singles, ever.

226. ‘Good Vibrations’ by The Beach Boys

I read an article once, on The Guardian, about how 1966 was the best year in the history of pop music. You can check it out here. And, as we reach the penultimate #1 of the year, you look around and pretty much have to agree with them. Yes, the standard of chart-topper has been ridiculously high since mid-1963, while 1961 was eclectically fun and there were a few months in 1957-58 when every rock ‘n’ roll legend around was lining up for their moment in the spotlight… But 1966 beats them all. Because 1966 has this song.

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Good Vibrations, by The Beach Boys (their 1st of two #1s)

2 weeks, from 17th November – 1st December 1966

How to even contemplate writing a post on ‘Good Vibrations’? How to say anything remotely original, anything that hasn’t been said a thousand times before. The genius of Brian Wilson… The hundreds of hours of tape… The synthesisers… The expense…. You’ve heard it all before.

So let’s listen to it, then, as if it were the first time we were ever hearing this hot new single from America’s biggest band. The follow up to their smash hit ‘God Only Knows’. Is this the disc to give them their long-overdue 1st British #1…?

It comes in all dreamy, and echoey. Angelic vocals and a shimmering backing track. I, I love the colourful clothes she wears… It’s trademark Beach Boys – high-pitched harmonies – but completely different to, say, ‘Barbara Ann’. And when the drums come in, like a drunken horse clomping around its’ stable, it’s gorgeously woozy.

Then woosh! We’re into the chorus. Not hanging around. That insistent bassline. The UFO stylings of the Theramin. I’m pickin’ up good vibrations, She’s givin’ me the excitations… Perfectly nonsensical pop lyrics. More harmonising. Good – ba-ba – Good vibrations – ba-ba…

Verse II. Snap back to woozy bliss. I… I look in her eyes, She goes with me to a blossom world… Trips? To different worlds? Is that a drug reference I smell? Are you boys smoking pot down there…? It’s the summer of love come six months early. Repeat the chorus. You can tell that they were stitching different pieces of music together, in the way that the song swerves this way and that, but it never sounds forced.

Then another sharp turn, into jingle-jangly Baroque pianos. Things get woozier. I don’t know where but she sends me there… We’re mid-trip, but we don’t have time to relax. Because now we’re at a funeral. At least, there’s a funeral organ, and a plaintive chant: Gotta keep those love-good, Vibrations a-happenin’ with her… Which fades away and is replaced by a home-on-the-range whistle, and a throbbing bass… Aaaaaahhhhhh!

Pause.

Good, good, good, good vibrations…! And then by the time you get to the layered na-na-na-nas you just want to say ‘Alright, boys, you’re just showing off now…’ Cue the fade-out, with the Theramin to the fore, as the aliens come and beam us all up. Phew.

It’s still The Beach Boys; but in a dimension we’ve never been to before. And it’s still a pop song; but one from a planet we’ve not managed to reach yet. The sonic shock you get when you hear it, alongside its contemporaries, is similar to that felt from ‘Telstar’, in 1962. Another record from another planet.

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That was fun! I have to admit that for years I’ve viewed ‘Good Vibrations’ as a sort of museum piece – a work of art to be admired, but not enjoyed. Best viewed from afar. That happens with ‘The Classics’. ‘Good Vibrations’ would never crop up in any of my playlists. But maybe it should. Maybe I’ll add it today. It stands up as a pop song. At heart it’s a ditty about falling in love at first sight. Musically, it’s outrageously creative without being pretentious. Perfect.

I love that this was The Beach Boy’s first UK #1. Slamming right in at the top with a little disc called ‘Good Vibrations’… Of course, it wasn’t their first hit. In 1966 alone, they’d had two #2s, with ‘God Only Knows’ and ‘Sloop John B’. In their native US they were huge, and had been for years. The only reason they took a little longer to take off in Britain is that their early surf-rock songs didn’t resonate on an island where any attempt at surfing usually ends in frostbite.

‘Good Vibrations’, and the ‘Pet Sounds’ album that preceded it, was a line in the sand. The Beach Boys were upping their game, and were ready to take on the British big boys: namely John and Paul. Anyway… You can read hundreds of more sophisticated analyses of ‘Good Vibrations’ – the record that changed pop music. You know where to find them. If, though, for reasons best kept to yourself, you have never heard ‘Good Vibrations’ before (or even if you’ve heard 1000 times already) press play on the link below, and get yourself some excitations…

225. ‘Reach Out I’ll Be There’, by The Four Tops

Amongst all the glorious music that has reached the top of the charts over the past few years, as we’ve reached the apex of the swinging sixties – Merseybeat, R&B, folk, soul, garage rock – one genre has been seriously underrepresented. Motown.

Granted it’s not technically a genre, more a record label… but hey – everyone knows the Motown sound. And ‘Reach Out I’ll Be There’, by male vocal group The Four Tops, is only its 2nd ever UK #1, after The Supremes’ ‘Baby Love’. And so, in the context of the charts of 1966, this record stands out every bit as much as its predecessor, Jim Reeve’s croon-tastic ‘Distant Drums’.

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Reach Out I’ll Be There, by The Four Tops (their 1st and only #1)

3 weeks, from 27th October – 17th November 1966

And, though I mentioned the ‘Motown sound’ right there in that last paragraph, the intro to this song is more ‘Spaghetti-Western’. They’re not pan-pipes, are they…? It’s ominous, and thrilling. A horseman clattering round the corner to save his damsel in distress. Now if you feel like you can’t go on, Because all your hope is gone, And your life is filled with much confusion, Until happiness is just an illusion…

It should be a ballad. It should be sung by Lionel Richie at a piano. It’s a brilliant song, but the music and the lyrics don’t really match. The woman in the song isn’t just a little unlucky in love; she’s apparently suicidal. Her world has gone cold, is crumblin’ down, while she drifts out all on her own… I mean, it’s heavy stuff. And all the while The Four Tops charge to her rescue aboard a frantic and incessant groove. Reach out for me…

It’s melodramatic – I get that – and way over the top. It reminds me of John Leyton’s ‘Johnny Remember Me’, possibly the only other #1 single so far to be based on a horse’s gallop. But several things about this record push it above camp curio and into the realm of the classic. There are the ‘Ha’s!’ the pepper the end of lines, the spoken asides – Just look over your shoulder! – and the outrageously funky bass riff before the choruses. And, most of all, the Dar-lin’s!

The Top’s lead singer, Levi Stubbs, commits to each and every line of this record. It’s one of the most memorable vocal performances that we’ve heard in this countdown. He commits to the point where it doesn’t matter how ridiculous the song is. His vocals are the reason that this is a Rolling Stone ‘Top 500 of All Time’ kind of tune.

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It’s a deserved #1. It’s a great song and it’s about time that another Motown disc got there. For a genre that is hugely loved and respected in the UK – think all the compilation CDs and ‘Motown Weeks’ on X Factor – it really never got its due representation at the top of the charts. ‘Reach Out I’ll Be There’ was the label’s 13th Billboard chart-topper. In Britain it was, as I mentioned at the start, its 2nd. They will have 1 (one!) more #1 in the ‘60s, and only eight in total, ever…

And I have to admit that The Four Tops are a band I’d heard of – Motown, sixties, etc. etc. – but didn’t know too much about. The hits were more famous than the group it seems, as scanning through their discography you can see some stone-cold classics: ‘I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch)’, ‘Standing in the Shadows of Love’, ‘It’s the Same Old Song’… Not a bad encore. And they do still tour, though ‘Duke’ Fakir is the only surviving original member.

All of a sudden, then, in The Four Tops and Gentleman Jim, two American acts have wrenched us away from what had been ‘the sound of ‘66’. And up next, another bunch of American ‘Boys’ (hint, hint) will drag us even further from our comfort zones with, ah yes, possibly the greatest pop song ever recorded…

Follow along with this handy playlist:

224. ‘Distant Drums’, by Jim Reeves

What to make of this, then…? Just as we were getting into a groove at the top of the charts – a rocking, modish, soulful groove with cool and forward-facing #1s following similarly cool and forward-facing #1s – The Kinks, The Blue Flames, Chris Farlowe and ‘Eleanor Rigby’, a curveball is thrown our way.

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Distant Drums, by Jim Reeves (his 1st and only #1)

5 weeks, from 22nd September – 27th October 1966

Gentle drums, a swaying rhythm, a crooner’s voice… I hear the sound, Of distant drums, Far away, Far away… It’s the sort of country-ish ballad that was ten-a-penny in the late fifties and early sixties. (I’d perhaps call this one country-calypso, if that’s at all possible…) But it’s a sign of how far popular music has come in a very short time that ‘Distant Drums’ sticks out like a sore thumb in late 1966.

It’s a sentimental song, about a man who hears the distant drums of war… Then I must go, And you must stay… And so he begs his beloved to marry him before he gets shipped off: Let’s share all the time we can before it’s too late… If you love me Mary, Marry me… (Gettit? ‘Mary’ – ‘Marry’?) It’s sweet. Old-fashioned. Your gran would love it. I am certain, even without checking, that Daniel O’Donnell has covered this.

Why on earth it spent over a month at the top of the charts I do not know. But there’s no need to make a big fuss about it. Yes, it’s nothing like the brilliant hits that went right before, but I’m not a snob. There’s room for all in this parish. Jim Reeves sings it beautifully, in a very understated way. And it’s worth noting that exactly one year ago, Ken Dodd was at the top of the charts – for five weeks as well, no less – with the similarly saccharine ‘Tears’. And as with Doddy, ‘Distant Drums’ was, despite the strong competition, the biggest-selling single of the year! Maybe there was something in the autumn air…

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Or maybe it was because, as I’ve just discovered, Jim Reeves was dead. We have our third ever posthumous #1! But, unlike Buddy Holly and Eddie Cochran’s swansongs, Reeves had been dead for a while… A light aircraft crash, in a storm, in July 1964. Well over two years before this record hit the top spot… A bit late for a tribute, then. One other explanation is timing: that the song’s theme suddenly became prescient with escalation of the Vietnam War. Jim Reeves – ‘Gentleman Jim’ as he was known – had had plenty of chart hits before this one, both alive and dead, and so perhaps it isn’t a huge shock that one would catch the public’s imagination like this.

Whatever the reason, it means we get a little interlude in our rundown of the nation’s biggest selling songs. I’m not going to pretend that hearing this song has been a highlight of my day. If it had come in, say, 1962, in a version by Frank Ifield, I would have probably had far less patience with it… Moving on, then, without any further ado…

223. ‘All or Nothing’, by The Small Faces

1966 has been a pretty cool year in terms of its chart-toppers. Nancy’s boots, The Walker Brothers, the cynical Stones and Dusty finally making it… Plus a lot of soul: The Spencer Davis Group, Georgie Fame and, most enjoyably of all, Chris Farlowe. To that list you can now add The Small Faces.

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All or Nothing, by The Small Faces (their 1st and only #1)

1 week, from 15th – 22nd September 1966

This is another cool record, and it’s cool from the very start – from the fade-in drum roll. We’ve not had one of those before at the top of the charts. Then a trippy riff, and a wistful voice: I thought you’d listen, To my reasoning, But now I see, You don’t hear a thing… Intelligent lyrics, and I do love the bravado required to rhyme ‘reasoning’ with ‘hear a thing’. The singer is trying to make his lover see that he doesn’t share. Things could work out, Just like I want them to, If I could have, The other half of you… And then an ultimatum: All or nothing, For me…

The guitars in the chorus are thick and chunky. Very forward-thinking. Very power-pop. It’s The Undertones come a decade early. I’d rank it along with ‘You Really Got Me’ and ‘Get Off Of My Cloud’ as one of the heaviest #1 singles so far. Although ‘All or Nothing’s heaviness is more subtle, not as in your face.

And it doesn’t last the whole song through. There’s a mellow ba-ba-ba-baba refrain mid-way through, and then a funky breakdown towards the end. And lots of great soul shout-outs from the lead-singer Steve Marriott. It’s amazing to think that he was just nineteen when this was recorded. Aw Yeahs, and Hear my children sing!, and Gotta keep on tryin’! And when he belts out the crucial I ain’t tellin you no lie, So don’t just sit there and cry! line, it’s a real finger-kiss moment. It’s a record that packs a lot in to its three minutes. Funky, heavy, soulful… A song I knew vaguely; but hadn’t realised just how forward facing it sounded. If you were a pop-loving kid in 1966, this is what your cool older brother would have been listening to.

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That’s the best word for this record. Cool. No point searching for a better one. Another cool chart-topper for the year. In pictures from the time, The Small Faces look the part too. Mods, with long hair and sharp suit jackets. And they crammed a lot into their four years together. (It is amazing, isn’t it, how many of these mid-sixties groups fell apart after just a few years – with a couple of obvious exceptions…) Like The Troggs from two posts back, certain other of their hits far outshine their one and only chart-topper. ‘Itchycoo Park’ made #3 the following year, and ‘Lazy Sunday’ – for many a year the only Small Faces song I knew – made the runners-up position in 1968. Neither of those songs sound anything like the heavy, soulful R&B on ‘All or Nothing’, which speaks to the band’s quality and creativity.

I have to admit that I thought I had imagined some link between The Small Faces and The Faces – assuming that it was just a coincidence in naming. But no, I was right: Marriot left, the remaining Faces dropped the ‘Small’ and recruited Rod Stewart. Rod the Mod, as he was back then. The rest is history. Marriot died tragically young, in a house-fire aged just forty-four. He’s kind of forgotten today, in the pantheon of sixties stars, which is a shame, as his legacy helped shape both punk and Britpop. The Jam and Blur certainly owe him a debt, anyway.

The Small Faces, then, with their one and only week atop the British Singles chart. Sit back, and Hear the children sing!

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222. ‘Eleanor Rigby’ / ‘Yellow Submarine’, by The Beatles

In my intro to The Beatles’ last #1 – ‘Paperback Writer’ – I said that it was a definitive split away from ‘The Fab Four’. This latest chart-topper from the group, then, is an even greater stride away from the mop-top days.

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Eleanor Rigby / Yellow Submarine, by The Beatles (their 11th of seventeen #1s)

4 weeks, from 18th August – 15th September 1966

The first side of this double-‘A’ disc contains a song that features no guitars, no drums, no nothing apart from strings. It’s a story about two people: Eleanor Rigby, who lives in a dream and wears a face kept in a jar by the door, and Father McKenzie, who writes sermons that nobody will hear and who spends his nights darning socks… We are a million miles away from ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’, and that was barely two and a half years ago!

It’s a horribly sad song. Just start with the main refrain: Ah, look at all the lonely people! Then delve into the details. The images. Eleanor sweeping confetti from the floor of a church, after a joyful wedding party has been and gone. The priest and his socks. Eleanor’s funeral, at the end of which Father McKenzie wipes the dirt from his hands and walks back to church alone. No-one was saved…

The characters are fictional, although Paul McCartney has at times been ambiguous when asked about them. The grave of an Eleanor Rigby exists in Liverpool, very near to where Paul and John first met as teenagers. She died in 1939, aged just forty-four, and it does seem slightly too much of a coincidence. But then again, if you were going to invent a fictional old woman’s name, Eleanor Rigby wouldn’t be a bad shout.

Real or invented, Eleanor’s song races along on tight, menacing violins – the story told in barely two minutes. It’s a vignette, a moment in time. You can imagine Paul McCartney viewing the churchyard from the window of a double-decker bus, Eleanor sweeping the church steps, Father McKenzie waiting for the congregation that will never come, and then going home to write the song. Just what is it about? A study in loneliness? The decline of Christianity? A comment on the misery of post-war Britain? The more you listen to it, the more important ‘Eleanor Rigby’ sounds. And the less like a chart-topping record. Only The Beatles could have taken this song to chart success. Largely because only The Beatles were capable of writing pop songs like this.

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They were also the only band capable of writing songs like the one on the other side of this disc. We flip the record, and move from the sublime into the ridiculous. As if they thought that ‘Eleanor Rigby’ might be too much of a departure, too avant-garde, and so wanted something childishly reassuring to go along with it. But, in its own way, ‘Yellow Submarine’ is every bit as arresting…

Let me state right here right now – it is impossible to truly hate ‘Yellow Submarine’. It might be irritating, cheesy and pointless… but there’s a loveable nugget buried in there. Perhaps it’s because ‘Yellow Submarine’ is often the first Beatles song people ever hear as toddlers. I think also, for me, it’s the fact that Ringo sings it. There’s something wonderfully soothing about Ringo’s voice. It’s got a melancholy tremble that contrasts nicely with the song’s stupidly optimistic lyrics. Plus, his voice always reminds me of ‘Thomas the Tank Engine’, which was my favourite TV show as a sprog.

In the town, Where I was born, Lived a man, Who sailed to sea… Ringo and chums sail out to find the land of submarines. They live a life of ease, beneath the waves… The end. It’s a complete novelty. The silliest, most childlike chart-topper since ‘(How Much Is) That Doggie in the Window’ from way back when. To pair this with ‘Eleanor Rigby’ reminds me of when Elvis paired ‘Can’t Help Falling in Love’ with ‘Rock-a-Hula Baby’, times ten.

But hey. I like the bit where the band begins to play, and the use of goofy sound effects as the sub gets its journey underway, and the final verse, with the shouted, distorted backing vocals. The band must have enjoyed recording it, as they went and endorsed a whole movie based on the song. The cartoon ‘Yellow Submarine’ is probably one of the iconic Beatles images, along with Sgt Peppers and the EMI stairwell pictures.

Of course, this being The Beatles, the lyrics to ‘Yellow Submarine’ have undergone intense scrutiny. Just what is it about, man? Is it an anti-war statement (Yellow Nuclear Submarine?) Is it an ode to a hippy commune? The band themselves, as they usually did, stated that it was just a children’s song about a big, yellow submarine. Nothing more, nothing less.

So, there you have it. Two completely bizarre songs from the biggest band in history, at the height of their powers. There’s an arrogance to them releasing this disc – in them saying to their adoring public: ‘Here, get your pretty little heads around this!’ And it marks the start of a mini-hiatus from the top of the charts for The Beatles. Their next release, another very famous double-‘A’ side, will (gasp!) not make #1, and we won’t hear from them until almost a whole year has passed. By which time they will have taken another supersonic leap forward…

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