259. ‘Those Were the Days’, by Mary Hopkin

From the longest number one yet… To the second longest. Five minutes plus! Picture yourself in a tavern in Leningrad, back when it still was Leningrad. Big furry hats, sturdy men, even sturdier women…

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Those Were the Days, by Mary Hopkin (her 1st and only #1)

6 weeks, from 25th September – 6th November 1968

It reminds me of Petula Clark’s ‘This Is My Song’, an old-fashioned ballad with a sweeping intro. Instruments that I couldn’t begin to name jingle-jangle before the violins come in… Once upon a time there was a tavern, Where we used to raise a glass or two… It’s a song of longing and regret. The singer is reminiscing about happier times, dancing and singing down the pub. Those were the days, my friend, We thought they’d never end… If ‘bittersweet’ was a sound, then that sound would sound a lot like ‘Those Were the Days.’

I wasn’t just making up all that stuff about Leningrad – this really is based on an old Russian folk-tune. A Georgian folk-tune, actually, which had been around since the turn of the century. And you really can picture some Cossacks high-kicking in time to the steady beat, especially when we get to the dadadadas. That’s another thing that this record has in common with its predecessor ‘Hey Jude’: a chanted refrain. Except this one doesn’t drag on for four and a half minutes…

By the third verse, time has moved on. The singer stands outside the same tavern: In the glass I saw strange reflections, Was that lonely woman really me…? In the fourth verse she timidly enters the bar… Oh my friend we’re older but no wiser, For in our hearts the dreams are still the same… Do they get back together? Have one last fling for old time’s sake? Or do they just leave it at a smile? I guess we’ll never know…

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As a melody, it’s pretty irresistible, coming as it does from a time before ‘pop music’ existed. It sounds nostalgic, like you’ve heard it before, somewhere, sometime… It feels as if it should be from a musical. It was also produced by one Paul McCartney, who may have popped up once or twice already on this countdown. He’d known the tune for years, and finally chanced upon Mary Hopkin as a singer. She was barely eighteen, and looks every bit the sixties flower-power girl. Long hair, bare feet, that kind of thing. ‘Those Were the Days’ was her first, and by far her biggest hit. She would go on to have four more Top 10 singles in the next couple of years, and still records to this day.

In one way, this song stands out as odd. It’s sentimental, old-fashioned, a bit cheesy… But in another way it is very late sixties: there are folk-rock touches (the ‘B’-side was even a cover of The Byrds’ ‘Turn! Turn! Turn!’) and some very Beatlesy flourishes (the horns that come in midway through, for example). Plus, this is 1968, and anything goes at the top of the charts this year. There have been some weird chart-toppers, and some weird ones are still to come…

9 thoughts on “259. ‘Those Were the Days’, by Mary Hopkin

  1. Pingback: 260. ‘With a Little Help From My Friends’, by Joe Cocker – The UK Number Ones Blog

  2. I was obsessed by this record and Mary Hopkin – she’d won several weeks on talent show Opportunity Knocks, as a wannabe folkie, including Turn Turn Turn, and Paul’s genius in spotting a surefire thing for the Fabs new Apple label was well-on-show and well-publicised at the time. He reinforced the connection by writing the follow-up Goodbye for her – which I was also mad on, and the tropical calpyso follow-up Temma Harbour summed up my living-in-tropical-climates lifestyle in 1970 (in Singapore).

    Then came the curse of Eurovision… oops! Career over.

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