314. ‘Vincent’, by Don McLean

From the glorious, life-affirming swagger of ‘Metal Guru’… to one of the saddest #1 singles ever recorded.

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Vincent, by Don McLean (his 1st of two #1s)

2 weeks, from 11th – 25th June 1972

The ‘Vincent’ in question is the Dutch artist Vincent Van Gogh, who lived and painted in the late 19th century, to little recognition and with failing mental health until severe poverty and depression led to him shooting himself. Not the cheeriest of topics to start with, even before we get to the song itself, and certainly not the usual territory of pop singles.

It’s also one of the most articulate and descriptive chart-topping singles yet. Don McLean takes Van Gogh’s most famous works and turns them into lyrics: Starry, starry night, Paint your palette blue and grey, Look out on a summer’s day, With eyes that know the darkness in my soul…

It’s just a voice, an acoustic guitar, and some light, light backing touches. The gist of the song is that the singer sympathises with Vincent, that he recognises something of himself in the artist’s struggle (this was written before McLean hit the big time with ‘American Pie’), and that perhaps Vincent was the sane one after all. If people know one thing about Vincent Van Gogh, it’s that he cut off his ear and sent it to his brother. But that’s not all that he was. Now I understand, What you tried to say to me, And how you suffered for your sanity… It works also in the voice of Van Gogh’s brother, Theo, who was entwined in Vincent’s life, and who suffered equally under his brother’s illness. It’s strong stuff.

I love the idea that Van Gogh was too pure, too good for this ordinary world. It comes to a height midway through, as McLean describes the day Van Gogh committed suicide: For they could not love you, But still your love was true, And when no hope was left inside on that starry, starry night, You took your life as lovers often do… Some artistic license there, as he shot himself in a wheat field during the day, but it’s a powerful image – that he could have died on a night like the one in his most famous painting. But I could have told you Vincent, That this world was never built for one as beautiful as you… There’s also an urban legend that ‘Vincent’ was played to rapper Tupac on his death-bed, after he had suffered the same fate as Van Gogh. It was, apparently, his favourite song.

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It ends on a gut-punch. Each previous verse has ended on the hope that: They did not listen, They did not know how… Perhaps they’ll listen now…. On the final note, however, this changes to: They were not listening, They’re not listening still, Perhaps they never will… The idiots will always outnumber us. We’re all doomed…

Acoustic singer-songwriter type music is far from being my favourite genre. It’s all too easy to sound clever and profound as long as you sing softly enough and don’t plug your guitar in. Especially in the past few years, every male solo artist to hit the charts seems to have a beard, a beanie hat and observations to make. (I blame Ed Sheeran, personally, but then I’d happily blame all the world’s problems on Sheeran.) However, when a song is written and performed as beautifully as this, with a genuine message and genuine emotion, it’s very powerful. Don McLean had made his name just a few months before with ‘American Pie’, another song built around the death of a cultural icon. You have to wonder if ‘Vincent’ would have been such a big hit had ‘American Pie’ not come along first (it had reached #2 in the UK), especially as this sounds so out of place in a chart dominated by glam and bubblegum, though you’d hope it would have.

Last winter, in those final, blissful pre-coronavirus days, I visited the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. If you have the chance to go one day, do! It displays his pictures in chronological order, and gives the background to his circumstances and mental state at the time of painting. When you get to the end, and see his very last works, it’s genuinely affecting. Maybe this song wouldn’t be hitting me so hard, had I not been there? Who knows. Under the museum is buried a time-capsule containing Vincent’s paintbrushes, and the sheet music to this song. Tens of thousands walk above it every year, to see the work of a once-ignored painter. People did listen, eventually.

313. ‘Metal Guru’, by T. Rex

I do love the fact that whenever a T. Rex #1 comes along, it usually whacks something terrible out of the top spot. ‘Get It On’ deposed ‘Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep’, ‘Telegram Sam’ ended The New Seekers’ attempts to teach the world to sing. Now this, T. Rex’s final (!) UK chart-topper ends five long weeks of bagpipes.

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Metal Guru, by T. Rex (their 4th and final #1)

4 weeks, from 14th May – 11th June 1972

And while we wipe a tear at the thought of never hearing Bolan’s boys again in this countdown, are we consoled by the fact that perhaps they saved their best for last…? It’s a record that soars in from on high, one that starts right in the thick of the action: Woah-oah-oah-oah… Yeaaaaaaahhhh!!!

Everything you want from a T. Rex song is present and correct. Stomp and swagger? Check. An irresistible, bubblegum hook? Check. Nonsense lyrics? Check. Metal guru, Is it you… Sitting there in your armour plated chair, Oh yeah… There’s as much point in asking what a ‘Metal Guru’ is as there was in enquiring about a ‘Telegram Sam’. Apparently, it is Marc Bolan’s idea of a God, on his throne. All alone without a telephone, Aw yeah…

And, as usual, in amongst all the madness, there’s a gem or two. Who wouldn’t want to have a silver-studded, sabre-toothed dream? Bolan’s delivery is imperious: camp, floaty, playful. He’s at the height of his powers, and you can imagine this being played at the end of a concert, the final song in the second encore, as the tired and emotional crowd sing and sway along.

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I called this their best #1, as it’s everything that makes T. Rex great, distilled and concentrated into the perfect two-point-five minute pop song. The sound is beefier than their earlier chart-toppers – just listen to the cascading drums, for example – as if glam rock were being mixed and produced by Phil Spector. (If the thought of a Glam-Rock Spector does nothing for you, then you are dead inside.) At the same time, ‘Metal Guru’ is so short and throwaway, so quick and effortless, that you could almost call it disposable. And yet – isn’t that the essence of glam? It’s not to be taken seriously; all sugar and little substance…

Has there been any other band that has had four consecutive number ones of such high quality. ‘Hot Love’, to ‘Get it On’, to ‘Telegram Sam’, to this. The Beatles, for sure, and maybe the Stones. Away from the very top of the charts, their run of ten hits from late 1970 to mid 1973 is superb. The likes of ‘Jeepster’, ‘20th Century Boy’, and ‘Children of the Revolution’ – all of which charted no lower than #4. They were the biggest band in the land, by far, and Bolan was the rock ‘n’ roll idol of his day – a position which he was born to fill.

I’ll do a T. Rex Top 10 soon, so will go easy on the bio for now. Suffice to say, the glory days didn’t go on much longer – glam rock wasn’t built to last – and Bolan started taking lots of drugs and rubbing people up the wrong way. Not that he lost the ability to write brilliant pop songs – some of the smaller hits from 1975-77 are great – but he certainly fell from his pedestal. He was just starting to get it together, working with up and coming punk acts and fronting his own TV series, when the car he was travelling in with his girlfriend Gloria Jones slammed into a tree in South London. He died instantly, aged just twenty-nine. And who knows – perhaps he went on up to meet the big Metal Guru in the sky…?

Follow my playlist below for all the #1s so far:

312. ‘Amazing Grace’, by The Pipes & Drums & Military Band of the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards

So, um… Our next number one single, from the spring of 1972, is… *checks notes*… a bagpipe instrumental.

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Amazing Grace, by The Pipes & Drums & Military Band of the Royal Scots Dragoon Guard (their 1st and only #1)

5 weeks, from 9th April – 14th May 1972

I really don’t think I can write anything interesting about the record itself. It is literally just the well-known hymn, ‘Amazing Grace’, played by a military band. There have been plenty of outliers hit the top of the charts before this – singers and styles that have stood out like a sore thumb against the sounds of the time – Russ Conway’s piano, Frank Ifield’s yodelling, traditional ballads from the likes of Ken Dodd and Des O’Connor. None, though, have stood out as much as this.

Why was this a huge, five-week #1 single? There must be a story behind it. ‘Amazing Grace’ had been recorded in a popular version by American folk singer Judy Collins in 1969, whose arrangement the Royal Scots Dragoon Guard copied. Hers was a statement against the Vietnam War, part of the late sixties counter-culture that gave us ‘Woodstock’ and ‘In the Year 2525’. Meanwhile, Johnny Cash, Rod Stewart and Aretha Franklin all recorded their own versions of the hymn in the early to mid-seventies.

Is it that simple, then? A record by some soldiers – albeit not ones directly involved in any conflict – appealing to a public that were seeing images of war on their TV sets every night? I’m not a religious person, but ‘Amazing Grace’ is a spectacular piece of music, one that touches somewhere deep within. It’s one of the best known songs in the English language, and so for it to appear at the top of the charts in some form seems apt, though it was apparently much more popular in American churches than in the UK.

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A bit of history: ‘Amazing Grace’ dates from the 1790s, instantly making it one of the very ‘oldest’ chart-toppers. Its writer, John Newton, had been a slave trader whose ship ran aground in a storm. This caused him to reassess his life, become a clergyman, and write this hymn about his experiences: Amazing grace, How great thou art, That saved a wretch like me… In the 1800s it became an abolitionist anthem and then very popular in African-American churches.

My problem with this record lies not in the religious-ness of it, or that it’s old-fashioned… My problem is with the bagpipes. I am Scottish. Yet I hate the sound of bagpipes. Something went wrong, somewhere, and I malfunctioned. It’s like being a cat that has no interest in pieces of string. Where most people hear a heart-tugging call from the misty glens and shimmering lochs; I just hear a shrill banshee-shriek. Listen to the first five seconds of this record: the drone and then the shriek. It’s not pleasant.

I enjoy it more when the brass section takes over in the second half of the song. But by the end we’re back to the lone piper. Except pipers are never really ‘lone’: they’re ten-a-penny on Edinburgh’s street corners in summer, quite often blasting out dirges like this. In conclusion, then, I’m with the stuffy old Director of Bagpipes at Edinburgh Castle who, when this record hit the charts, summoned the Pipe Major of the Royal Scots for a dressing down. How dare he demean the venerable bagpipe by featuring it on a pop record! Sadly for him, and all bagpipe haters around the world, ‘Amazing Grace’ is not even the biggest hit record of the 1970s to feature the instrument… Sigh.

311. ‘Without You’, by Nilsson

If anyone’s feeling a little fragile, a little unlucky in love, then they may want to skip this next #1. Things are about to get emotional

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Without You, by Nilsson (his 1st and only #1)

5 weeks, from 5th March – 9th April 1972

In our previous post – ‘Son of My Father’ – we had the first uber-electronic chart-topper. This time out, another new genre gets its turn to debut – the power ballad. Plus there’s the small matter of one of the best ever vocal performances on a #1 record.

It starts off with a piano. Just a piano, jabbing and stabbing like audible heartache. Well I can’t forget this evening, Your face as you were leaving, I guess that’s just the way the story goes… Harry Nilsson’s voice is slightly on edge, pitched slightly higher than you might expect. Strings are added in, as is a bass guitar for the second verse… No I can’t forget tomorrow, When I think of all my sorrow… We’re building steadily towards a chorus that everyone knows.

I can’t live, If living is without you… Can’t live, I can’t give anymore… It’s soft, gentle to start with, but not for long. He’s been holding it in, and now he just has to let her know what she should know. He tries again. Can’t live, If living is without you…! This time there’s a growl in his voice. Anger, along with the pain.

Power ballads are a much, much-maligned genre. And that’s because people automatically think of the late-eighties, early-nineties monstrosities from the likes Bryan Adams and Celine Dion (I do enjoy that type of power-ballad, in a completely ironic way, honest…) But when they’re done right, when they build subtly to a heart-wrenching climax, like this bad boy. Ooft. It gets you. The chorus comes around a second time, and Nilsson’s not hanging around anymore. A rush of drums, and then he slams into it: Can’t liiiiiivvvvvveeeeee….. His voice up an octave, sweat on his brow. This is the line that everyone thinks of, when they think of ‘Without You.’

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Cliched as it may be: this is a song for belting out by yourself, an empty bottle (or two) of wine on the floor. And all this time I’ve been thinking that she left him high and dry, unannounced. But of course, there’s the When I had you there but then I let you go… line. He did something to drive her away. It only adds to the heartbreak. The song slowly fades, and you can imagine a camera panning out, leaving the singer alone on his sofa. Cut to black.

Actually, it’s striking that, in a song that’s all about the vocals, Nilsson stops singing thirty seconds before the end of the song. We’re used to bloated power ballads dragging on for at least five minutes, with multiple chorus repetitions and plenty of chest-beating. ‘Without You’ keeps it to a minimum, clocking in at just over three minutes. Short, sweet and effective.

There’s no point trying to place this in context. It’s a classic, one that would work in any era. But it’s also one of those songs that few people realise is a cover. The band Badfinger had written it and released it as an album track in 1970. Their version is slower, slightly less intense, but still really good. (The band sadly didn’t receive any royalties from the song, but that’s a story for a different post…) And, of course, the song will be exhumed, and returned to the top of the charts, as one of those aforementioned OTT early nineties power-ballads, by none other than Queen of the OTT early-nineties power-ballad: Mariah Carey. We’ll cover that one when the time comes but, just to give you a sneak preview of my write-up… It’s nowhere near as good.

Nilsson really was a bit of a one-hit wonder in the UK (OK, a two-hit wonder). ‘Everybody’s Talkin’’ made a modest #23, and that was pretty much that. Considering his body of work and the esteem with which he’s held, that seems pretty surprising. He passed away in January 1994, just as Mariah’s cover of ‘Without You’ was climbing the charts. We can only hope that the two were not related…

All 310 previous #1 singles, in one handy playlist:

310. ‘Son of My Father’, by Chicory Tip

Time for something a little different. A record with a glam rock beat to it – as is becoming the norm – but with twiddly, electronic bits too. Think Joe Meek producing a Slade song, sung a sarfLahndan accent.

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Son of My Father, by Chicory Tip (their 1st and only #1)

3 weeks, from 13th February – 5th March 1972

The initial riff is simple and repetitive; but effective. It drills into your head and stays there. There’s a reason why this song lives on to this day in football chants. And at the end of each line there’s an electronic flourish. It sounds futuristic, but also old-fashioned in its simplicity. And then completely of its time thanks to the glam-stomp. An impossible record to place…

Adding another layer are the lyrics. This is no love-song, nor a party anthem. It’s a song about breaking with tradition. In the first verse, a mum is advising her son as he grows up: Be just like your dad lad, Follow in the same tradition, Never go astray and stay an honest loving son… (Though to be honest I’m relying on ‘LyricFind’ here, thanks to the thick accent and the mix, which pushes the synthesisers right to the front.)

Son of my father, Molded, I was folded, I was preform-packed… It’s an anthem of frustrated youth, of the need to make your own way in the world. It’s got a message… Which is overshadowed by the fact that this is the first completely electronic #1. It’s just, to my ears anyway, synthesisers and hand claps. (I know, there’s a bassist in the video below.) We’ve had ‘electronic’ chart-toppers before… ‘Runaway’ by Del Shannon, and The Tornadoes seminal ‘Telstar’, but none so completely sold to the sound. The solo here is a fifties piano-rag, but one beamed in from another planet.

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‘Son of My Father’ was based on a German hit from the year before, the melody of which was composed by none other than Giorgio Moroder. Moroder himself had released a version with English lyrics – listen to it here, it’s slightly faster and with a bit more ‘oomph’ to it, I think I like it better – but it did nothing. Then Chicory Tip got hold of the song and sold a million with it.

By the end of the song, the son has broken away from the pressures of his family and tradition. Son of my father, Changing rearranging into something new, Collecting and selecting independent views… But he’s still the son of his father. You can reject the past while still respecting it. I like it.

It’s a strange little song. I have to keep reminding myself that it really is quite ground-breaking. It’s easy to lose sight of that, and to get distracted by the fact that it’s also a catchy pop hit. Chicory Tip had been around since 1967, without much success. ‘Son of My Father’ was their first hit of any kind, and they scored two further Top 20s in its wake. They released one album before calling it a day in 1975, though they soon reformed in different versions that still tour.

So then. We have a huge #1 smash, combining two of the 1970s foremost sounds: glam and electronica. (Throw in a dash of disco and it would have been a hat-trick.) This is a big hit, and a big step forward.

309. ‘Telegram Sam’, by T. Rex

Oh yes. Thrusting The New Seekers out of the way, thank God, with one flick of his corkscrew hair… Marc Bolan, ladies and gentlemen.

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Telegram Sam, by T. Rex (their 3rd of four #1s)

2 weeks, from 30th January – 13th February 1972

With a chunky, crunchy riff that is part-electric guitar and part-sax, and some wonderful nonsense lyrics, T. Rex score their 3rd chart-topper in well under a year. This is a single that swaggers in to the room oozing arrogance and attitude – a band at the peak of their powers and popularity ever so slightly phoning it in. (OK, ‘Telegramming’ it in.)

Telegram Sam, Telegram Sam, You-ooh, Are my main man… The song is a list of characters, introduced one after the other. Golden Nose Slim, Golden Nose Slim, I-I-I, Knows where you’ve been… Who are these people? Are they people? Are they a band? Are they cocaine-fuelled imaginings? Who knows, who cares, when you can join Purple-Pie Pete, whose lips are like lightning making girls melt in the heat…

I did read that the line Bobby’s alright, Bobby’s alright, He’s a natural born poet, He’s just outta sight… is a reference to Bob Dylan, while the other references are people close to Bolan. His ‘main man’ was his manager, for example. And then there’s ‘Jungle-face Jake’, about whom one must make no mistake… That would be his managers assistant. Who was black. Yeah… Not the kind of lyric you would get away with writing these days. Moving swiftly on…

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Because this is a song written by Marc Bolan, there is of course a verse dedicated solely to himself. And isn’t the line: Me I funk, But I don’t care, I ain’t no square with my corkscrew hair… just perfect? There’s always a gem in amongst the nonsense with T. Rex. For the mini solo we get the same electric violin from Slade’s ‘Coz I Luv You’, and there’s lots of squealing and breathing from Bolan throughout.

Maybe it’s because it’s coming hot on the heels of Benny Hill and bloody ‘I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing’, but this record sounds super-thrilling and fresh – a blast from the future. Of all the bands that have ever existed, T. Rex are the one that I wish I’d been around for in real time. Of course it would have been great to have been a teenager at the birth of rock ‘n’ roll, or to have been around to hear ‘She Loves You’ for the first time in 1963, but I know that if I had been a fourteen-year-old in 1972, then I would have been sending my parents into a tizzy with my love of mascaraed Marc and his boys.

But I have to admit that, of T. Rex’s four number ones, ‘Telegram Sam’ is my least favourite. It’s a solid eight out of ten – that’s how good a band they were – but it doesn’t quite hit the heights of their other chart-toppers. Like I said at the start, it sounds like it’s been written to order. Still, as Marc Bolan can be heard breathing orgasmically just before the chorus: Sounds like the good stuff… Yes Marc, it certainly does.

308. ‘I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing (In Perfect Harmony)’, by The New Seekers

I knew the chorus of this song, as everyone does, what with it having firmly imbedded itself in our popular culture. And so, I was fully expecting a cheesy, sing-along record…

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I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing (In Perfect Harmony), by The New Seekers (their 1st of two #1s)

4 weeks, from 2nd – 30th January 1972

…but was not prepared for just how sickly saccharine this song truly is. Do not play this record on a full stomach! The melody is jaunty, the vocals are twee: I’d like to build the world a home, And furnish it with love… Grow apple trees, And honey bees, And snow-white turtle doves… I mean, eeesh. (*Insert vomiting emoji*)

The singers, with their gentle acoustic guitars, sound like earnest church youth-camp leaders around a campfire. Or the bouncy volunteers that confront you on the street, asking for your signature in some worthy cause. I’d like to teach the world to sing, In perfect harmony, And I’d like to hold it in my arms, And keep it company… They sound utterly insufferable – in case I wasn’t making that clear – though I wouldn’t bet against at least two of them having a crippling drug addiction, because nobody is naturally this perky. I do like the bass-line, though.

The message is one of peace and love, obviously, which is nice and all. But the lyrics never get above ‘primary school assembly’ level. We’d all like everyone to get along better and love another, obviously, but the Summer of Love has been and gone – with far better music than this – while a couple of years ago it was all doom and gloom at the top of the charts: ‘Bad Moon Rising’ and ‘In the Year 2525’. This record is the sound of people giving up on the hippy dream and/or a cynical counter-culture, and settling for meaningless crap. And listening to this today, given the absolute shitshow that 2020 has been so far, well it’s almost unbearable.

Plus. Plus, plus, plus. The one other thing that everyone knows about ‘I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing’, other than the sugary chorus, is that it originated from a jingle in a Coca-Cola advert. I’d like to buy the world a coke… etc. etc. For this ‘anthem’ of world-peace to have stemmed from one of the world’s mega-corporations, a company that floods every corner of the globe with its spectacularly unhealthy soft drinks and subsequent litter, is the piece de resistance. It’s actually quite funny.

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I’ll get down from my high-horse now. This record wasn’t meant to be taken so seriously. It’s just a cute little pop song aimed at the kids. But, at the same time – back on the high horse for a second – I can’t help feeling that, for people in 1972, spending a few pounds on this shite was the same as people nowadays changing their Facebook profile to reflect whatever the week’s worthy cause is. Making the doer feel better about their privilege, while making no difference whatsoever to the world’s problems.

In fact, I’ve grown to detest this record so much in the past half an hour that I’m going to make a bold, bold claim. That it is worse than ‘Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep’. Yes. ‘CCCC’ was inane and annoying. ‘ILTTTWTS(IPH)’ – that’s one hell of an abbreviation – is inane, annoying, and has ideas way above its station.

Finally, one question needs answering. What relation did The New Seekers have to The (old) Seekers, the Australian folk-pop act who scored two #1s in 1965 with the average ‘I’ll Never Find Another You’ and the dirgey ‘The Carnival Is Over’. Well, both bands share one member: Keith Potger, guitarist, who founded The New Seekers in 1969. They had scored a #2 the year before with ‘Never Ending Song of Love’ and will, I’m sure you’ll be thrilled to discover, top the charts one more time before leaving us in peace forever. Till then…

Follow along through the first (almost) 20 years of the charts, with this playlist:

307. ‘Ernie (The Fastest Milkman in the West)’, by Benny Hill

Oh God. You know we must have reached the festive season, when a song like this comes along. Join us then, for the story of Ernie, driver of the fastest milk-cart in the west, and his sworn rival, Two-Tonne Ted, the baker…

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Ernie (The Fastest Milkman in the West), by Benny Hill (his 1st and only #1)

4 weeks, from 5th December 1971 – 2nd January 1972

It’s set to a faux-Spaghetti Western theme, but narrated (‘sung’ would be too generous a verb) in a west-country accent by comedian Benny Hill. And did someone say ‘innuendo’? Because this song is an innuendo smorgasbord, a triple-shot of double-entendres…

Ernie comes galloping into Market Street, to meet his lady-love, a widow called Sue. They said she was too good for him, She was haughty, proud and chic, But Ernie got his cocoa there, Three times every week… Oo-er, matron, and so forth. On we go – this is a story told at breakneck speed.

Ernie can’t compete with Ted’s wide range of pastries: He tempted her with his treacle tarts, And his tasty wholemeal breads, And when she saw the size, Of his hot-meat pies, It very near turned her head… I’m smiling as I listen, even though I should really know better… He knew once she’d sampled his layer-cake, He’d have his wicked way… Meanwhile, Ernie can but offer milk, and not much else.

So Ernie and Ted have a shoot-out, as must happen in all the best Westerns. As he leapt down from his van, Hot-blood through his veins did course, And he went across to Ernie’s cart, And he didn’t ‘alf kick his ‘orse… (Do you have to be British to get this ropey wordplay?) …whose name was Trigger… Two-Tonne Ted fights dirty, of course, throwing a stale pork-pie that kills Ernie. Sob. Now it’s a pastiche of the old early sixties death-discs, ‘Tell Laura I Love Her’, ‘Johnny Remember Me’ and the like. Two piss-takes for the price of one!

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But. A woman’s needs are many-fold. Sue marries Ted regardless. And on their wedding night, as they lie in their bed, they are haunted by Ernie’s ghostly gold-tops a-rattling in their crate… They won’t forget Ernie! It’s actually a bit of a dud finish to what, compared to most novelty records, has been a pretty funny song. You know, for its time. It also has what must be one of the first music videos – see below. (I do enjoy the fact that Ted still has his hat on in bed.)

For the fourth year running, then, we have a novelty #1 single at Christmas. You can blame The Scaffold for starting it, with the irritating ‘Lily the Pink’, then it was ‘Two Little Boys’, ‘Grandad’ (which hit top-spot just after New Year), and now this. And, for what it’s worth, I like ‘Ernie’ the best of the four. It’s aiming squarely for silly. Not smart, not sentimental… Just plain old pantomime, music-hall, very British, ‘silly’. Not that I’m rushing to add it to my Spotify queue, either, but still.

Benny Hill actually was a milkman, before hitting the big-time, and had written this back in the fifties. He performed it on his show – which in 1971 was pulling in 21 million viewers! (there were only three channels, to be fair) – and then released it as a single. For me, Hill is a slightly vague figure from a time before I was born. He wasn’t on TV growing up, having been pushed aside by the new wave of comedy acts in the eighties. He’s reduced, in my mind, to his famous theme tune playing as he gets chased by an irate crowd.

At the same time, though, I just watched a few of clips on YouTube, and they raised a smile. They’re old-fashioned, and ‘of their time’, but they’re funny, in the worthy tradition of Charlie Chaplin (a huge fan of Hill’s) and Mr. Bean. Plus, you’ll just have to get used to silly novelty songs cropping up every December… and not many will be as tolerable as this!

306. ‘Coz I Luv You’, by Slade

Without wanting to repeat myself… Having covered over three hundred #1s now, and I’ve come to realise the importance of a song’s intro. Sometimes, as a casual listener, they pass you by. But when you’re here to write about the song, when you’re poised to commit your first impressions to paper, the intro is everything.

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Coz I Luv You, by Slade (their 1st of six #1s)

4 weeks, from 7th November – 5th December 1971

All of which is me building up to the fact that ‘Coz I Luv You’ has a great intro. In stereo, it sounds like someone in chunky boots, stomping down a corridor. Then the music, which can only be described as ‘menacing’. It’s Slade, Britain’s most successful glam-rock act, but this isn’t a very ‘glam’ record. Noddy Holder’s vocals start off light, and sneering: I won’t laugh at you, When you boo-hoo-hoo, Cause I love you…

Then a big beefy bass comes in, as Holder’s voice grows fuller: I just like the things you do, Don’t you change the things you do… You can draw a couple of similarities between this and the previous number one, Rod Stewart’s ‘Maggie May’ / ‘Reason to Believe’. Both songs are concerned with the singer being in love with a pretty terrible sounding woman. In ‘Coz I Luv You’: You make me out a clown, And you put me down… I still love you…

The other is the violin – though the country version from ‘Reason…’ has been distorted into an electric monster here, making the solo sound like an Irish jig from the bowels of hell. Apparently, Jim Lea – who played the violin on it – thinks the song sounds ‘soft’ and ‘namby-pamby’… Which begs the question: what the hell would he classify as ‘hard’? As the song fades out with the stomping and the violin, and some added shouting for good measure, it sounds like a gang of hooligans striding home from the pub, ready for their next punch-up.

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I like this song, and I love Slade, but it stands out because it doesn’t really sound like the ‘Slade’ everyone knows. By their next number one they will, though. Like T. Rex, Slade had been around long before glam. Unlike T. Rex, they’d spent the final years of the sixties playing soul and Motown covers and sporting skinheads. Maybe ‘Coz I Luv You’ represents the last gasp of the ‘old’ Slade (Ambrose Slade, as they were called), before they sold their souls to glam. Though even at their peak, when they were wearing sparkly hats, platform shoes and cravats, I think don’t think they could ever quite mascara-out being four bruisers from Wolverhampton.

By the end, Holder’s voice has transformed completely, as he bellows out the closing lines. There’s another similarity to Rod Stewart – two of rock’s throatiest voices topping the charts in a row. One thing that is very Slade, and that’s already here in all its glory, is their shortened song titles. I used to think they looked crazily modern, using text-speak in the early seventies, when mobile phones were the stuff of science-fiction, but apparently it was an attempt to mimic the Birmingham/Black County dialect.

So, there we have it. This is already the second-last #1 of 1971 – it feels like we’ve raced through the year – welcoming some huge names: T. Rex, Rod, Slade… Middle of the Road… Like I said, and as I’m not sure came through from the write-up, I really like this song. It just sounds so belligerent, so menacing, so not #1-on-the-pop-charts material at all…

305. ‘Maggie May’ / ‘Reason to Believe’, by Rod Stewart

And so we welcome to the stage a true rock icon, a man who sells albums and fills stadiums to this day. Sir Rod Stewart. (I’m assuming he’s a ‘Sir’. Sort it out, Queenie, if he isn’t.)

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Maggie May / Reason to Believe, by Rod Stewart (his 1st of six #1s)

5 weeks, from 3rd October – 7th November 1971

This was his very first solo single release to make the charts. Straight to the top with a bullet, with what is his most famous song? I don’t think I’ve ever heard the ‘single’ version of ‘Maggie May’, which is a full two minutes shorter than the extended version I grew up with. It’s the same intro, albeit condensed, a confident acoustic riff, then two emphatic drumbeats announcing that the story is ready to begin. Wake up Maggie, I think I got something to say to you…

Young Rod has been seduced by an older woman, spent a summer with her, and is now starting to wake up to the harsh realities of their relationship. It’s late September and I really should be back at school… ‘Maggie May’ is famously based on Stewart’s encounter with a real woman, at a Jazz festival when he was sixteen. Getting away from the slightly predatory story – imagine if the genders were reversed – the lyrics capture perfectly the voice of a callous teen, coupled with some corny rhymes: I laughed at all your jokes, My love you didn’t need to coax… And then the classic: The morning sun when it’s in your face really shows your age… Harsh!

He loves her, but wishes he’d never seen her face. We’ve all been there. Young Rod sounds like a bit of a tearaway – his options post-Maggie are either becoming a roadie or making a living out of playing pool… I’m sure he’ll be fine, and get over the heartbreak. Anyway, the whole song is basically him rehearsing what he’s going to say to Maggie. He hasn’t broke it off just yet! It hinges on the opening and closing lines: I think I’ve got something to say to you… and I’ll get on back home, One of these days…

Unfortunately, the single version cuts the best verse, the one with the: You turned into a lover and mother what a lover you wore me out! line. Maybe that would have been too ripe for daytime radio. Then comes the solo, and the mandolin outro, one of the Celtic-sounding elements that often pop up in Rod Stewart’s music. It’s an undeniable classic, one that – cliched but true – still sounds fresh today. One that no amount of terrible pub karaoke versions can ruin. And while the woman may have been real, her name wasn’t ‘Maggie May’ – she was a famous Liverpudlian prostitute. I’m sure the actual ‘Maggie’ was delighted by the comparison…

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It’s been a long old while since we had a double-‘A’ hit the top of the charts – not since Louis Armstrong in 1968. On the flip we have Rod’s cover of ‘Reason to Believe’, a song I’m certain I’ve never heard before. It opens with a lonesome piano, before the vocals come in. Both these songs are very much focused on Stewart’s voice. Which is fair enough, as he does have one of the best.

If I listen, Long enough, To you… I’d find a way, To believe, That it’s all true… In ‘Maggie May’, he was trying to convince himself to leave someone. In this song, he’s trying to talk himself into staying, despite knowing that his lover lied: straight faced, while I cried… He needs a reason to believe in her. The two songs work well together, both in terms of the sound and the lyrical theme.

A fiddle gives this record the country feel that the mandolin gave ‘Maggie May’. Then midway through, we’re left with just the voice. Someone like you, Makes it hard to live, Without, Somebody else… It’s a nice song, that slowly grows on the listener; but it’s no ‘Maggie May’. Technically, ‘Reason to Believe’ was the song first pushed to radio when the disc was released, but the song on the other side quickly won through. Maybe it was because The Carpenters had released a version of the song the year before – a classic Carpentersy-country version – while the folky original had been recorded in 1965, by Tim Hardin, that the label thought ‘Reason…’ might have caught people’s attention quicker.

For, while this was Rod Stewart’s first charting single, it wasn’t his first attempt at a solo career. He’d been releasing singles since 1964, and had spent the sixties busking, playing session gigs and jumping between bands. Then came The Jeff Beck Group, in which he met Ronnie Wood, and then The Faces (basically The Small Faces minus lead singer Steve Marriott), with whom he was having hits alongside his solo work in the early seventies. After this huge five-week #1 smash there will be no looking back for Rod – he’ll go on to become one of the decades’ biggest stars, on either side of the Atlantic, and we’ll be meeting him plenty more times in the months to come.