2nd Anniversary Special! Cover Versions of #1s Part V – The Ramones & CAKE

It’s two years since I started this blog and I’m exactly 250 number ones in! To celebrate, I am doing a week-long special: cover versions of #1 singles! Whenever I write a post, I not only discover and enjoy the #1 singles, I also often discover and enjoy other recordings of these hit songs.

My final two covers take us down a rockier road…

‘Needles and Pins’, by The Ramones (1978)

(Originally reached #1 in 1964, with The Searchers)

The Ramones are one of my go-to bands, that I can listen to at any time, in any mood… Alas, they will come nowhere near the top of the UK Singles chart. I also love The Searcher’s version of ‘Needles and Pins’, a perfect slice of melancholy Merseybeat. So, put the two together and you got a good ‘un. Of course, this is actually a cover of a cover, the original being a version by Jackie De Shannon, but hey (ho!) Enjoy!

‘Strangers in the Night’, by CAKE (2005)

(Originally reached #1 in 1966, with Frank Sinatra)

I discovered this cover on the soundtrack to ‘Stubbs the Zombie’ – a video game that I have never actually played. I found the CD in a bargain bin years ago and it is one that’s stayed with me. It’s full of covers of ’30s through ’60s hits by mid-00s indie bands like The Dandy Warhols, Death Cab for Cutie and The Flaming Lips. Seriously, check it out… Anyway, CAKE do this cover of Ol’ Blue Eyes least favourite song and I think it’s great. They also do a nice cover of ‘I Will Survive’, which I might dig out when that particular record make #1…

I hope you enjoyed this interlude of #1s through different lenses. Normal service will resume next week, with chart-topper #251…

2nd Anniversary Special! Cover Versions of #1s Part IV – Wanda Jackson & Marianne Faithful

It’s two years since I started this blog and I’m exactly 250 number ones in! To celebrate, I am doing a week-long special: cover versions of #1 singles! Whenever I write a post, I not only discover and enjoy the #1 singles, I also often discover and enjoy other recordings of these hit songs.

Our penultimate pair of covers are from two ladies, with two unique interpretations of two very well-known number ones…

‘Shakin’ All Over’, by Wanda Jackson (2011)

(Originally reached #1 in 1960, with Johnny Kidd & the Pirates)

A late career flourish for an artist who had been around since the fifties, when she released sparky rockabilly hits like ‘Fujiyama Mama’ and ‘Funnel of Love’. Like Mae West in yesterday’s post, Jackson was well into her seventies when she recorded this, but the voice is still there. And on guitar…? One Jack White.

‘Mack the Knife’, by Marianne Faithfull (1997)

(Originally hit #1 in 1959, with Bobby Darin)

Speaking of voices, how about Marianne Faithfull’s rasp on this version of the bloodiest #1. Bobby Darin’s version is canon, but it is quite jazzy and uplifting. This one is much more menacing, especially when Faithfull starts delivering the lines like a pantomime villain. The lyrics here are far more explicit and, apparently, much more faithful – pardon the pun – to the German original.

Last two tomorrow!

2nd Anniversary Special! Cover Versions of #1s Part III – Mae West

It’s two years since I started this blog and I’m exactly 250 number ones in! To celebrate, I am doing a week-long special: cover versions of #1 singles! Whenever I write a post, I not only discover and enjoy the #1 singles, I also often discover and enjoy other recordings of these hit songs.

Our next two covers come from a lady not best known for her recording career… the one and only Mae West. (Is that a pistol in your pocket, or are you just pleased to see her…?)

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‘Day Tripper’, by Mae West (1966)

(Originally reached #1 in 1965, with The Beatles.)

After spending decades scandalising and chucking saucy bon-mots around like confetti, the Queen of Camp turned to rock ‘n’ roll. Bear in mind that she was seventy-three when she recorded this… I love that she is now the ‘big teaser’, the one who only does one-night stands. And check out the scuzzy solo mid-way through, accompanied by some lascivious moans…

‘Great Balls of Fire’ by Mae West (1972)

(Originally reached #1 in 1958, with Jerry Lee Lewis.)

A few years later, she repeated the trick. This one isn’t so much a cover version as a re-imagining, with some ridiculous new lyrics: My bells they ring when you shake that thing… Sung by a woman born in 1893. Both this album, and ‘Way Out West’ are surprisingly good, and not completely tongue in cheek. She also does a rocking version of ‘Shakin’ All Over’, and an outrageous re-write of ‘Happy Birthday Sweet Sixteen’. I’ve gone for ‘Great Balls of Fire’, though…

All together now: You shake my nerves and you rattle my brain, I just adore your sensational frame…

Phew. I’ll give you time to recover, and see you tomorrow for two more…

2nd Anniversary Special! Cover Versions of #1s Part II – Elvis & Little Richard

It’s two years since I started this blog and I’m exactly 250 number ones in! To celebrate, I am doing a week-long special: cover versions of #1 singles! Whenever I write a post, I not only discover and enjoy the #1 singles, I also often discover and enjoy other recordings of these hit songs.

Our next two covers are by two of the founding pillars of rock ‘n’ roll…

‘Such a Night’, by Elvis Presley (1960)

(Originally hit #1 in 1954, with Johnnie Ray)

I adore Johnnie Ray’s version of this, but Elvis’s version hits the spot just as nicely. Both singers get how sensual and sexy a song this is meant to be. Recorded for his ‘Elvis Is Back!’ album, ‘Such a Night’ is proof that Elvis could still kick it after being in the army. His voice is superb here, but just as brilliant is DJ Fontana on drums. It reached #13 in the UK when finally released in 1964.

‘Memories Are Made of This’, by Little Richard (1964)

(Originally hit #1 in 1956, with Dean Martin)

Deano crooned the life out of this, his only number one hit. Little Richard does not croon. He gives it the full treatment – it’s an experience similar, I’d imagine, to standing behind a 777 as it revs up. I’ve already covered how criminal it is that Little Richard never scored his own #1 single, and will take any chance going to bring him up! Enjoy…

Two more tomorrow…

2nd Anniversary Special! Cover Versions of #1s Part I – Joni Mitchell & Telex

It’s two years since I started this blog and I’m exactly 250 number ones in! To celebrate, I am doing a week-long special: cover versions of #1 singles! Whenever I write a post, I not only discover and enjoy the #1 singles, I also often discover and enjoy other recordings of these hit songs.

I’ve picked ten covers – two a day – of songs that have topped the charts earlier in our countdown. Some are brilliant, some are weird, some are by artists that we have met already in this countdown, others are by artists that will never get anywhere near the top the charts… Enjoy!

First up: two #1s from the 1950s, re-imagined two decades later.

‘Why Do Fools Fall in Love’, by Joni Mitchell and The Persuasions (1980)

(Originally hit #1 in 1956, with Frankie Lymon & The Teenagers)

I have to admit I struggle with Joni Mitchell – to my shame – but this is lovely. It’s a live recording too, which adds something extra. The music is tight and upbeat, but Mitchell’s vocals show the heartache behind the lyrics. It got to #102 in the US, and didn’t chart in the UK.

‘Rock Around the Clock’, by Telex (1979)

(Originally hit #1 in 1955, with Bill Haley & His Comets)

Telex were a Belgian synth-pop group who deconstructed the single that some say kicked the whole rock ‘n’ roll shebang off. Is this amazing, or is it terrible? Or does it straddle perfectly the fine line between the two…? It’s worth a watch simply for the lead-singer reading the paper mid-performance. This cover reached #34 in the UK, and Telex went on to represent their country at the Eurovision Song Contest, with a song titled ‘Eurovision’, and finished in 19th place.

Two more #1 cover versions tomorrow…

250. ‘Young Girl’, by The Union Gap ft. Gary Puckett

We’re back on fine late-sixties form, with our grooviest, swingingest chart-topper since The Love Affair’s soaring ‘Everlasting Love’. Brass section? Check. Strings? Check? Floaty backing vocals? Check. A soulful lead singer? Check, check, and check.

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Young Girl, by The Union Gap ft. Gary Puckett (their 1st and only #1)

4 weeks, from 22nd May – 19th June 1968

Throw in the horn solo and we’ve got a cute and catchy sounding #1 hit. A little cheesy at times, a little saccharine in its chord-progressions maybe, but overall a fun and breezy pop record. Shall we just wrap it up there…?

No. For we haven’t mentioned the lyrics yet. And what lyrics… Young girl, Get out of my mind, My love for you is way outta line, Better run girl, You’re much too young, girl…… It’s a song that sets its creepy stall out from the start, and then just gets creepier. Take your pick from lines like: With all the charms of a woman, You’ve kept the secret of your youth… or, Beneath your perfume and make-up, You’re just a baby in disguise… which leads on to the beautiful: And though you know, That it’s wrong to be, Alone with me, That come-on look is in your eyes…

I keep thinking that I must be coming at this with my super-woke, 2020 glasses on, and that I should be cutting a song recorded over fifty years ago some slack; but pretty much every line is a doozy. The final verse, in which the singer urges the girl to run back to her momma, could easily be shouted by a sweat-drenched serial killer who’s come to his senses just in time. Get outta here, he yells, Before I have the time, To change my mind…

He does, at least, realise that his feelings towards the girl are inappropriate. Credit where credit’s due. But all the blame is put on her… She’s the one who should stop what she’s doing! Typical eh, ladies? That’s probably the thing that dates ‘Young Girl’ the most – the idea that she’s a teenage temptress, an underage siren, who knows exactly what she’s doing. The song it reminds me of the most is ‘Does Your Mother Know?’, by ABBA. But that record somehow stays the right side of creepy, maybe because it’s half-sung by two women, or because Benny and Bjorn look like cuddly teddies… There’s also ‘U16 Girls’ by Travis, but they at least have a sense of guilt in that song, and take responsibility for themselves: ‘so make sure that she’s old enough, before you blow your mind…’

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The Union Gap were an American band formed, and led, by Gary Puckett. (Strangely, they were usually know as Gary Puckett & The Union Gap, but this record was released – in the UK at least – as The Union Gap featuring Gary Puckett.) They only had one further Top 10 hit in the UK – though they had a few more in the States – and they disbanded as the decade ended.

I don’t know. One the one hand it’s a catchy pop song; on the other it is creepy. A quick go on your search engine of choice matches ‘Young Girl’ with articles like ‘Nine Songs That Just Aren’t OK Anymore’, ‘Secretly Horrifying Song Lyrics’ and the bluntly put ‘Top 10 Jailbait Songs’. With 2020 vision, this is an uncomfortable listen. But… Isn’t that the problem with our modern day, woke, cancel-culturing, Twitter-storm world? That we apply the social standards of now to cultural products of bygone ages? From copies of ‘Huckleberry Finn’ being banned from public libraries to millennials being horrified by episodes of ‘Friends’…

I don’t have an answer to any of that. All I’d suggest is that you enjoy listening to ‘Young Girl’ from the privacy of your own home or earphones, and perhaps don’t bust it out at the next office karaoke night…

249. ‘What a Wonderful World’ / ‘Cabaret’, by Louis Armstrong

*Insert now standard comment about 1968 being an eclectic year* The eclecticism continues with the oldest chart-topper yet, a jazz trumpeter who was a veteran even before the charts, before rock ‘n’ roll, before popular music as we know it. Ladies and Gentlemen, Mr. Louis Armstrong.

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What a Wonderful World / Cabaret, by Louis Armstrong (his 1st and only #1)

4 weeks, from 24th April – 22nd May 1968

‘What a Wonderful World’ is the sort of song for which the word ‘timeless’ was invented. It hit #1 in 1968, but it could have similarly done so in 1948, or ’88, or in 2168. It will hit the top spot again, in a different version, in 2007. It’s a song that you all know, one that doesn’t need me to dissect and examine it…

But still, that’s kind of why I’m doing this. It drifts in on a lullaby’s melody, before Louis begins to sing, listing all the things that he sees – trees of green, red roses too – which remind him of just how wonderful the world is. The colours of the rainbow, So pretty in the sky… There’s a tremble in his voice at the end of every line, either from age or from emotion, that is beautiful.

You could be cynical, and remind yourself of all the things he must not be seeing – the litter on the street, the homeless person sleeping on the bench – but no. What would that achieve? Despite its simplicity and childlike optimism, this is a song whose opening chords cannot fail to make you go all warm inside. It is pop music as hymn, the closest comparison in terms of previous number ones would be Frankie Laine’s ‘I Believe’. It’s an old man looking back on life with the weight of experience… I especially love the I hear babies crying, I watch them grow, They’ll learn much more, Than I’ll ever know… line. The fact that Armstrong died just three years after recording this record, and was already in declining health, makes it even more touching.

He ends with an Oh yes…, which lingers as you consider that the babies of 1968 are now well into middle age, while the babies of 2020 are being born into a world that may not exist for much longer… But hey-ho. Before we depress ourselves completely, let’s flip the disc and enjoy the other side of this double-‘A’.

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For all the loveliness of ‘What a Wonderful World’, it is nothing like the music that Satchmo had spent the previous forty years recording. His cover of ‘Cabaret’, though, is a lot more jazzy. His voice, the exact same voice which was a second ago trembling with emotion, now flirts and tempts: Come taste the wine, Come hear that band, Yes it’s time for celebratin’, Right this way your table’s waitin’…

It is, of course, the theme from the musical of the same name, the one made much more famous by Liza Minelli. Life is a cabaret, Old chum… So come to the cabaret… (Though it omits the verses about Elsie the whore/corpse…) It makes for the perfect double-‘A’ disc, the yin to ‘Wonderful World’s yang. And Armstrong’s famous trumpet gets an outing here, as it simply had to at some point on his sole chart-topper.

It’s always good to have some jazz at #1, and I make this the 3rd jazz-based chart-topper of the year, after ‘The Ballad of Bonnie and Clyde’ and ‘Cinderella Rockefella’. Though, honestly, it feels a bit wrong to mention those discs in the same breath as this. Not that it’s Louis Armstrong’s most influential moment or anything, but still… Perhaps I’m biased. The first CD I ever bought, aged seven or so, was a discount box-set of Satchmo’s Greatest Hits, from the thirties through to the fifties. Completely true – I’m not making that up to sound precocious (while The Spice Girls would soon come along to ruin my taste in music). I even went through a wanting-to-be-a-saxophonist phase, though my parents – probably quite sensibly – never shelled out and bought me one.

Neither ‘What a Wonderful World’ or ‘Cabaret’ featured on those CDs, because come the sixties Armstrong had changed record labels and become a pop star, scoring #1s on either side of the Atlantic. His bio is too long and storied to go into in any sort of detail. A jazz icon, he was one of the first black artists to enter the white public’s consciousness. He released his first single in 1923 (!), was born in 1901 – as close as we’ll come to a chart-topper being born in the nineteenth century – and was the oldest ever chart-topper, at sixty-seven, until Tom Jones popped up again and spoiled it a few years ago. The term ‘legend’ is overused, but we’ll make an exception here, for the one and only Louis Armstrong. Take it away, Satch…

All the #1 singles so far in one place:

248. ‘Congratulations’, by Cliff Richard

Just what we needed – a bit of Cliff. 1968 has so far been a year in which everything and everyone has had a go at #1, and Sir Clifford doesn’t need to be asked twice before claiming his ninth number one single.

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Congratulations, by Cliff Richard (his 9th of fourteen #1s)

2 weeks, from 10th – 24th April 1968

I’d say that this, along with ‘Summer Holiday’ and ‘Mistletoe and Wine’, are the quintessential Cliff hits. The ones that people would go for if you shoved a microphone in their face and yelled ‘Name a Cliff Richard song!’ I know without even checking that this was one of the songs he sang during that rain delay at Wimbledon. Peak Cliff.

It goes without saying that ‘Congratulations’ is complete and utter cheese. It blasts into life with a goofy grin, all horns and handclaps, sounding like the theme song to the campest game show never commissioned. Congratulations, And celebrations, When I tell everyone that you’re in love with me… It also goes without saying that it’s pretty irresistible.

The big drums, the whimsical strings, the jaunty guitar, the music hall horns… It’s pop at its most disposable; yet also at its purest. ‘Congratulations’ is a song that exists to make people smile and tap their feet – a song that would get a reaction out of anyone aged between seven and ninety-seven. Congratulations, And jubilations, I want the world to know how happy I can be…

And, unlike some of the snoozers Cliff was releasing towards the end of his imperial phase – ‘The Next Time’, ‘The Minute You’re Gone’ and the like – at least it’s upbeat. I especially like when it slows down and Cliff starts doing the can-can (in my mind at least…) I do wish they’d kept it up and gone for a big, bawdy brass finish.

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It’s tempting to see this as a comeback for Cliff – his 1st #1 in three years. But that would be to rewrite history. Between ‘The Minute You’re Gone’ and ‘Congratulations’ he had managed to score six Top 10s. Just because he wasn’t topping the charts with every release doesn’t mean he had gone anywhere. He was a still huge presence, and would continue to be for the next forty-odd years. But, after a year in which Engelbert, Petula Clark, Tom Jones et al had taken easy-listening back to the top of the charts, perhaps he felt safe enough to stop trying to catch The Beatles and to just settle into middle-of-the-road comfort. Maybe this is the exact moment that Cliff the rocker finally is laid to rest, and Cliff the housewives’ favourite is born?

‘Congratulations’ was famously the British entry to the Eurovision Song Contest in ’68, in which they were defending the crown won by Sandie Shaw’s ‘Puppet on a String’ the year before. It was the hot favourite, but was beaten at the last by the Spanish entry ‘La La La’. Rumours abounded that the result had been fixed on the orders of Franco himself! But still, ‘Congratulations’ was a huge hit across Europe – #1 from Norway to Belgium, to Spain itself.

Looking back, we’ve only gone nine years since Cliff’s first chart-topper ‘Living Doll’, but so, so much has changed. Rock ‘n’ roll has died, been revived, died again… Merseybeat, R&B, Soul and Folk have all been the order of the day. Meanwhile, Cliff has stayed afloat just by being Cliff. Fortunately / Unfortunately (delete as appropriate) we won’t hear from him now for another eleven years…

247. ‘Lady Madonna’, by The Beatles

Ah, the Beatles. Bringing some sense and stability to the top of the UK singles charts, after a few months of wackiness. But actually, even this, a famous hit record from the most famous band in the world, stands out. It’s nowhere as weird as we’ve heard this year, but it’s still different…

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Lady Madonna, by The Beatles (their 14th of seventeen #1s)

2 weeks, from 27th March – 10th April 1968

For a start, ‘Lady Madonna’ is a piano driven song, which is pretty rare for a Beatles’ single. It’s well-known as a tribute to Fats Domino, which means it’s already the second 1968 #1 to reference the famous pianist, after Georgie Fame’s ‘Ballad of Bonnie and Clyde’. Fats scored his biggest hit for a while by releasing his own version later in the year. Incidentally, I just discovered that he only ever had one (!) UK Top 10, which for a founding pillar of rock ‘n’ roll seems scandalous…

Anyway, as good as the piano riff is here, I love it when McCartney’s bass kicks, and even better when the main guitar kicks in for the second verse, growling like a pit-bull. And then comes the saxophone, another instrument that The Fab Four didn’t often use. It’s a song with a swagger and a swing to it. Anyone attempting it at karaoke would have to finish their performance with a mic toss.

In the back of my mind, I know what the song’s about. I’ve read, somewhere and sometime, just who Lady Madonna was. But before I Google and confirm, here’s my interpretation after listening to it for the first time in ages. She’s poor (Wonder how you manage to make ends meet…) with kids (Baby at your breast…), lots of kids (Wonders how you manage to feed the rest…). She’d like to escape (Lady Madonna, Lying on the bed, Listen to the music playing in your head…) but is trapped in a life of drudgery (Thursday night your stockings needed mending…)

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It’s a kind of ‘Eleanor Rigby’ part II, and again Lennon and McCartney – though by this point they were largely writing separately, this being a Paul composition – prove themselves able to go way beyond the regular confines of pop music. ‘Madonna’ gives the woman in the song saintly connotations and – yes, I remembered correctly! – McCartney was inspired to write the song by a picture of a breastfeeding tribeswoman in a copy of National Geographic. The music here might be back-to-basics rock ‘n’ roll, but the lyrics are some of The Beatles most cutting. See how they run… What’s ‘running’? The kids? The years? The people that see this poor mother in the street…?

On a far more frivolous note, the use of ‘Madonna’ in the title also opens up a fascinating sub-genre: #1 hits that reference other chart-topping artists! Obviously, they weren’t referencing Madonna Ciccone, who was a good fifteen years away from releasing anything, but still… To be honest, I’m struggling to think of others… ‘Moves Like Jagger’ never quite made it to the top. ‘Rock Me Amadeus’, maybe, as had the charts been around in the 1700s Mozart would have done alright… In ‘Return of the Mack’ Mark Morrison was singing about himself… Let me know if you can think of any other. It’s fascinating, but completely pointless. Anyway.

Anyway, anyway, anyway… All of a sudden, we are approaching the end of The Beatles’ chart-topping careers. This was their fourteenth #1, and there are only three more to go! Luckily, two of them are stone-cold classics. The other is, well… We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.

246. ‘The Legend of Xanadu’, by Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Tich

Just what on earth was being pumped into the British water supply in early 1968? Trad jazz, Bonnie and Clyde, Eskimos and yodelling duos… Something pretty heavy duty was being passed around, by both record makers and record buyers, to induce this carnival of craziness. And it shows no signs yet of letting up. For we’re off to Xanadu!

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The Legend of Xanadu, by Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Tich (their 1st and only #1)

1 week, from 20th – 27th March 1968

We open on a dusty Andalucian plain. Spanish guitars tremble, somebody mumbles something something esta es… Then wham. A whip cracks. Or somebody shoots a B-movie ray-gun. Whatever it is, it wakes up both you and this song. We’re in cartoon soundtrack territory. Imagine Scooby Doo on a far-away planet that looks a lot like Mexico. That sentence might sound crazy, but that’s where we are right now, with #1 single 246.

You’ll hear my voice, On the wind, ‘Cross the sand… For all the zaniness of the extra bits – the sound effects, the Mariachi band and what have you – the main melody of the song is pretty traditional. Old-fashioned even – something with a hint of 1961 about it. If you should return, To that black, barren land that bears the name of… Xanadu!

The lyrics, as far as I can follow, are about a spurned lover destined to see out his days in a forgotten land. I’m listening carefully, to see if there might be a metaphor hidden away in there – that the singer is actually just imagining himself in this black, barren land – but I can’t find any. This is literally a song about a far-off place called Xanadu, and a lonely man who lives there.

We arrive, of course we do, at a spoken word section that makes this song feel even more like a theme-tune. What was it to you that a man laid down his life for your love…? So wait… he’s dead? And Xanadu is some kind of afterlife? It ends with a question: Will you find your way back someday, To Xanadu…?

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Not if I can help it, mate… I jest. I like this song. It’s grown on me over the past four or five listens. I now find myself swaying and shaking imaginary maracas as it ends. ‘The Legend of Xanadu’ is crazy – the craziest record yet this year (and that’s a high bar!) But I’m going to have to do some research to find out what on earth inspired this hit single and got it all the way to the top of the charts…

It’s not from a movie, nor is it the theme to a cartoon. It’s a stand-alone pop single by an already established band. More on them later. Research into ‘Xanadu’ takes you all the way to Inner Mongolia in the late 13th Century – a capital of China, used as a residence by the Khans and ‘discovered’ by Marco Polo, via the biggest private estate in the world from the movie ‘Citizen Kane’. In both these examples, Xanadu was an example of opulence and splendour; whereas in ‘The Legend of…’ it’s painted as a wasteland, a place of exile. And, famously, this won’t be the last chart-topping single to name-check it…

Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick and Tich (with a name like that you couldn’t expect them to release normal music) were several years into their careers by this point, their biggest hits having been ‘Bend It!’, the superb, and really heavy for its time ‘Hold Tight!’, and ‘Zabadak!’ (which makes ‘Xanadu’ sound conventional.) They seem fun, loved an exclamation mark in their titles, and are a band I’m keen to listen to more of. Wiki lists them as ‘Freakbeat’, which I think sums up this song perfectly. Like so many bands we have met these past few years, Dave Dee and Co.’s chart success ended as the sixties drew to a close.

So we forge on, past the Eskimos, the Rockefellas and the Cinderellas, across the sands of Xanadu, to find out what 1968 has in store for us next. Whatever it is, it surely won’t be dull…