355. ‘Love Me For a Reason’, by The Osmonds

It’s time. A little later than you might have expected, but The Osmonds have their number one single.

Love Me For a Reason, by The Osmonds (their 1st and only #1)

3 weeks, from 25th August – 15th September 1974

It’s every bit as cheesy and tinkling as you might expect. It soars, it swoops, it blinds you with the whiteness of its teeth. Suddenly the UK charts sound very ‘American’, with three glossy, shining number ones in a row. But while George McCrae and The Three Degrees were pretty cool… this one really ain’t.

Don’t love me for fun girl, Let me be the one, girl… Love me for a reason, Let the reason be love… For the second time this year, we come to a #1 that I first heard as a child thanks to an Irish boyband. I knew ‘Seasons in the Sun’ through Westlife’s cover, I knew this thanks to their predecessors Boyzone, who took their ‘Love Me For a Reason’ to #2 in 1994.

If love ever-lasting, Isn’t what you’re asking… I’ll have to pass, girl, And be proud to take a stand… Maybe I’m showing my prejudices here, but isn’t it usually girls that sing about love that lasts? The Three Degrees, for example, were just asking when they’d see you again. Or there was Freda Payne lamenting broken promises on her wedding night. Guys are usually happy with, well, something more instant. But, The Osmonds were good ol’ Mormon boys that needed more than just physical attraction (their words.) All of which culminates in the spectacular line: My initial reaction is, Honey give me love, Not a facsimile of…

Any song that can crowbar the word ‘facsimile’ into its lyrics cannot be all bad and, to tell the truth, this is a decent pop song with a highly singalongable chorus. It also has one hell of a key change towards the end, that sounds as if a sound engineer accidentally leant on a dial. And, even though I introed this post by suggesting that The Osmonds had waited longer than most for their shot at #1, ‘Love Me for a Reason’ was only their sixth chart hit in the UK. It feels like a longer wait because, unusually, the solo Osmond(s) topped the charts long before the band. Donny’s been there three times, and Little Jimmy (while not technically a member of ‘The Osmonds’ at this point) has summited once.

The band would go on releasing albums until the end of the seventies, before splitting up and moving into different ventures. Donny would be the most successful, with his sister Marie. But this is it for them, in terms of topping the charts as a group. Just the one. And I’m sure most would agree that, if they could choose the one Osmonds disc they would allow to top the charts, it wouldn’t be this one. It would be… Well, I might just do a separate post on that very soon. Watch this space…

354. ‘When Will I See You Again’, by The Three Degrees

As if to confirm that our last helping of disco-soul – George McCrae’s ‘Rock Your Baby’ – wasn’t a fluke, here’s another slice. Go on, you know you want to…

When Will I See You Again, by The Three Degrees (their 1st and only #1)

2 weeks, from 11th – 25th August 1974

This is an impossibly glitzy record – you can’t help imagine a shimmering disco ball slowly spinning above The Three Degrees as they sing – and, as with our previous #1, it’s supremely glossy. Back in the fifties, I used to write that American singers sounded so polished and mature, so sexy, next to our gurning music hall stars. So it is again. We were dancing like loons to ‘Sugar Baby Love’; they were coolly shimmying to records like this.

Hoooo…. Haaaa… Precious moments…. It’s a reboot of the classic sixties girl-groups – The Shirelles, The Ronettes and, of course, The Supremes. When will I see you again…? Lyrically, this is very close to ‘Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow’, with the singers asking if what’s just passed is the real thing or just a fling. When will we share precious moments…? It’s such a perfect pop song, so well put together, so smooth and silky, that I’m struggling to pick it apart. Maybe it’s one that simply needs listening to, and appreciating, and I can shut up. Post over.

It’s also a record that gets better as it progresses. I like it when lead singer Sheila Ferguson gets insistent: Are we in love, Or just friends… Is this my beginning, Or is this the end…? Enter a funky brass section, on top of the swirling strings, which I feel shouldn’t work but which does, wonderfully.

Apparently Ferguson really didn’t like ‘When Will I See You Again’ when it was first offered to the group. “I thought it was ridiculously insulting to be given such a simple song, and that it took no talent to sing it,” she said later. Not the first, nor the last, example of a singer not knowing a hit song even if it jumped up and bit them on the behind.

I’m amazed at how few big hits The Three Degrees enjoyed in the UK. This was the biggest of just five Top 10s. In the US – and this truly has me flabbergasted – this record reached #2… and then they never had a hit again! I didn’t know much about them, but The Three Degrees just sound like such a classic pop group. I’d have had them up there with the aforementioned sixties girl groups in terms of hit singles.

Still, as I’ve said before, if you’re gonna have a limited number of hits, you better make ‘em good ones. This is definitely a ‘good one’. It is also, by all accounts, one of Prince Charles’s favourite songs – the group performed it for him, in Buckingham Palace, for his thirtieth birthday. The man has taste. The Three Degrees are still a going concern, with one of the ladies whom you can hear on this record: Valerie Holiday. Of the other two, Fayette Pinkney, a founding member of the group, passed away in 2009, and Sheila Ferguson went solo in the ‘80s. There have been fifteen members in total but, for obvious reasons, only three at one time…

353. ‘Rock Your Baby’, by George McCrae

This next #1 arrives like a fluffy cloud, a soft pillow upon which you might rest your head after a long day. Satin bedsheets. Rose petals scattered. A heavy-breathed Sexy…. Smooth. As silk.

Rock Your Baby, by George McCrae (his 1st and only #1)

3 weeks, from 21st July – 11th August 1974

Woman, Take me in your arms, Rock your baby… The voice sounds as if it’s coming from on high, slightly out of focus, drenched in echo. Is he singing about dancing, or sex? Dancing then sex? There’s nothing to it, Just say you wanna do it… I’d go with sex. Especially with that chucka-chucka rhythm nudging us along, like the soundtrack to a classic, moustaches and chest-hair porno.

There’s not a huge amount to this record. It floats in then floats out. Chilled, funky, and soulful. Kids today would call it a ‘mood’. George McCrae’s voice is honeyed and high-pitched, especially when he reaches for the falsetto at the end of the Now let your lovin’ flow, Real sweet and slow… line. (Ok, there’s no way this song isn’t about sex…)

This is soul with a capital S, the sound that had been dominating US pop music for years, and that had made headway in the UK charts in the late sixties/early seventies, before getting turfed out the way by glam. But it’s back, baby. The backing track existed before the lyrics, recorded by a member of KC and the Sunshine band and using a drum machine when that was a very experimental thing to do. McCrae came along, added his vocals and scored a huge debut hit around the world.

But wait. A. Second. Calling this ‘soul’ isn’t telling the whole picture. ‘Rock Your Baby’ is something else too. One of those watershed moment that come along every so often, when a #1 single points to the future. A five letter future: D. I. S. C. O. The five most sneered upon letters in pop music…?

Not that I’ve got anything against disco. I’m really looking forward to writing posts on some of the decades later, cheesier disco hits. And I’ve nothing against this song. It’s cool, and catchy. Get this track down your headphones this while walking along the street and you won’t be able to stop swaggering. It sounds so much more grown-up, so much more sophisticated, when compared to the year’s earlier chart-toppers from Gary Glitter and – as much as do I love it – Mud. This is a disc your cool older sister would have been listening too while you were still blasting ‘Tiger Feet’.

George McCrae struggled to follow-up this monster hit – it was #1 everywhere – but he’s still alive and still performs, in his mid-seventies. Press play, then, and enjoy the sound of the summer of ’74. As we pass the midway point of the year, popular music gently ticks over into a new era…

352. ‘She’, by Charles Aznavour

Un chanson, en anglais…

She, by Charles Aznavour (his 1st and only #1)

4 weeks, from 23rd June – 21st July 1974

It’s a simple ballad – a piano, a voice, not much else to start with – about an unnamed woman. She. A bit of a femme fatale, it sounds like. She may be the beauty or the beast, May be the famine or the feast… Not the most flattering lyrics for a love song, you might argue.

The words are crammed into each line, running on slightly, spilling over onto the next, in that way that French chansons do, a la Jacques Brel and Edith Piaf. She who always seems so happy in a crowd, Whose eyes can be so private and so proud… Meanwhile, when the drums come in, it starts to sound like a late Beatles ballad, a ‘Something’, or a ‘Long and Winding Road’.

Charles Aznavour was French-Armenian, and he sings this in heavily-accented English. I’m not sure it would work so well were it sung in straight-forward British or American tones. The Frenchness of it adds glamour, mystery, and romance – all the things that we pasty, repressed Anglo-Saxons associate, rightly or wrongly, with the other side of the channel. I knew this song through Elvis Costello’s late-nineties version and, looking back, it’s not as good simply because he isn’t French.

Not only was Aznavour French, he was also pretty old – he’d just turned fifty when ‘She’ hit the top of the charts, making him… I think… the second oldest male chart-topper, so far, behind Louis Armstrong. He sounds older, even, when he sings, and again this adds to the mystique, to the idea that his life has been plagued-slash-brightened by this alluring lady. It was recorded as the theme to a TV series: ‘Seven Faces of a Woman’ (which can’t have been very memorable, as it doesn’t have a Wiki page) and soared to the top of the charts as a result. Amazingly, this was Aznavour’s second and final chart hit in the UK. Mais, en France…

I would need another article to do his biography justice. A seventy year career taking in 1,200 songs… France’s Sinatra… ‘Entertainer of the Century’ ahead of Elvis… Seller of 200 million records… Performing until a few weeks before his death aged ninety-four! And that’s before you get to the non-musical portion of his life: he sheltered Jews during WWII, he was a National Hero of Armenia, as well as Armenian ambassador to Switzerland, an opposer of far-right politicians, a supporter of LGBT rights before that was the done thing… He sounds like quite the guy. And it just goes to show how insular our Anglo-centric world can be, given that I knew nothing of his life before writing this post!

Follow along with my playlist:

351. ‘Always Yours’, by Gary Glitter

When I first saw Gary Glitter’s third and final #1 looming on my list, I assumed it would be a ballad. ‘Always Yours’. A Glitterballad. A cod-Elvis croonathon. I was bracing myself…

Always Yours, by Gary Glitter (his 3rd and final #1)

1 week, from 16th – 23rd June 1974

Except, it’s another foot tapper. Glitter clearly didn’t do ballads. (OK, he did, they just didn’t get to number one.) I’m getting Mud (the that’s me, that’s me lines are straight outta ‘Tiger Feet’) through Shakin’ Stevens vibes. Also, hints of Adam Ant. Considering that the latter two acts are a decade away from arriving on the scene, we can conclude that Gary Glitter was a bit of an influence. He wasn’t always, I have to keep reminding myself, just a creepy paedo.

You know, I know, I’ll never never let you go… It’s a frantic record that races through its three minute allocation. The glitter stomp drumbeat has been sped up to raucous rockabilly levels. There are handclaps, pianos, and Glitter’s frenzied vocals. He certainly was an energetic performer. Al-ways Yo-ours…

As with all his #1s, you don’t have to look very hard before finding lines that sound dodgy in hindsight. I’m a scream, A teenage dream… he yelps. Which is rich, coming from a man in his mid-thirties. We’ve come full circle, from the days of thirty-something Bill Haley rocking around the clock to Glitter and Alvin Stardust dancing about in sparkly jumpsuits. When the kids have moved on you know a style is on its way out…

But ‘Always Yours’ is a perfectly reasonable slice of late-era glam. It is undeniably catchy; though I would rate it worst out of his three chart-toppers. I had never ever heard it before, and I probably never will again without choosing to. I won’t be doing a Gary Glitter Top 10, or a Remembering Gary Glitter when he passes. He has been jailed for possessing child pornography, for child sexual abuse and attempted rape. We’ll leave him here. (Actually, not really. We’ll have cause to mention him when we arrive at a couple of 80s #1s.)

It is interesting, however. Why has Gary Glitter been so completely erased from British pop music history, when others with similar allegations to their name haven’t? Plenty of huge stars from the sixties and seventies have their accusers… Jagger, Bowie… while Pete Townshend got caught ‘researching’ a book on child abuse. They all still get played on the radio. Is it as simple as Glitter got convicted? Then there’s Michael Jackson. Again, no conviction, but enough evidence and testimony for us to conclude that something unsavoury was going on at Neverland. His music’s still played, for the most part. Phil Spector, currently in prison for murder, will have his Christmas hits played this year; Glitter’s ‘Rock n Roll Christmas’ will not be getting a spin.

Does it then, ultimately, come down to snobbery? Are we willing to overlook artists’ indiscretions, as long as they make ‘good’ music? Gary Glitter was always a bit of a prat, a clownish character, who released disposable pop music. Same goes, to an extent, for R. Kelly, who in recent years has undergone a similar cancelling. I’m not advocating a rehabilitation of Gary Glitter. He’s clearly a nasty piece of work. I’m just amazed at how sudden and complete his fall from grace was. Even in the mid-1990s he was being sampled by Oasis on the opening track of the decade’s biggest album. He was due a cameo in The Spice Girls movie, which had to be re-shot last-minute following his ill-fated trip to PC World. Then, cut. Finished. One of Britain’s biggest pop stars was Britain’s public enemy number one. That, as they say, was that.

350. ‘The Streak’, by Ray Stevens

Oh Lordy. Did anyone order a country rock, spoken word, novelty song about a sprinting nudist…? Anyone? Anyone?

The Streak, by Ray Stevens (his 1st and only #1)

1 week, from 9th – 16th June 1974

No punches pulled: this is a song that makes your teeth clench. The mix of sound effects and voice acting, not to mention liberal use of a banjo, does not make for a relaxing listen. Then there’s a wheeee noise that SongFacts describes as a: ‘zipppp kazoo sound.’ Eeesh! It is a story told by two characters: a roving news reporter, and a slack-jawed yokel who, for some unspecified reason, is being followed by a streaker.

Oh yes they call him ‘the streak’, Fastest thing on two feet… Off he goes, around the supermarket, through the gas station, over to the basketball stadium… He’s just as proud as he can be, With his anatomy, He goin’ give us a peek… The yokel is appalled by ‘The Streak’, but the same can’t be said for his wife Ethel… No matter how much of a warning her husband gives her, she always ends up catching a glimpse…

I don’t want to sound like a po-faced prude, but… This song isn’t very funny. Its closest chart-topping companion would be Benny Hill’s ‘Ernie’, but at least that was witty and warm, and just plain old silly. ‘The Streak’, though, is brash, in your face, and just plain old irritating. The lowest point is the canned laughter – actual canned laughter – as if the producers deep down knew that it wasn’t in any way hilarious and needed to convince themselves.

Some of the lines are kind of clever, I guess: he’s always makin’ the news, wearing just his tennis shoes… and I do like the image of ol’ Ethel disobeying her husband to have a glance. By the end, she’s made her choice and has stripped off too. Ethel you shameless hussy! (Her husband’s words, not mine, and apparently mis-heard by many for something much ruder…)

I wasn’t around, but apparently there was a streaking craze in the mid seventies. In March ’74 alone there was a streaker at an Arsenal Vs Man City match, that Wikipedia debatably describes as ‘the first instance of streaking in English football’, and a streaker at a cricket test between Australia and New Zealand. Meanwhile, a ‘streaking epidemic’ was hitting US college sports. There was even a streaker at the 1974 Oscars! Clearly the world was ready for a hit single about running in the nude. And Ray Stevens delivered… I dunno, maybe you had to be there.

Stevens had been around since the fifties – a country singer-songwriter who flipped between serious and comedic singles at random. His two biggest hits before this had been ‘Ahab the Arab’ – a US #5 in 1962 – and the primary school hymn ‘Everything Is Beautiful’ – an actual Billboard #1 in 1970. An eclectic range, to put it mildly…

But back to ‘The Streak’. The main problem with this is that it is obnoxious. I’ve said it before – some novelties are novelties by accident, through experiment, trial and error. ‘Mouldy Old Dough’, for example, or even ‘Telstar’ – a glorious, weird outlier in the history of the charts. Other novelties set out from the start to amuse, entertain or, more often than not, annoy. Did anyone who bought ‘The Streak’ actually listen to it more than twice? Probably not. But there it is: a transatlantic #1 hit.

349. ‘Sugar Baby Love’, by The Rubettes

I described the previous chart-topper – ABBA’s glorious ‘Waterloo’ – as a ‘sugar rush’ of a song. It is replaced now at the top of the charts by what I’ll call a ‘sugar overdose’ of a song.

Sugar Baby Love, by The Rubettes (their 1st and only #1)

4 weeks, from 12th May – 9th June 1974

Why does ‘Waterloo’ work, while this doesn’t? Both songs are constructed from the same ingredients: power chords, sturdy drums, backing vocals and a big glance back to the pop of the early sixties. But ‘Waterloo’ leaves you soaring, and ‘Sugar Baby Love’ leaves you feeling icky. I am not a songwriter; but if I was I bet I’d be forever chasing and missing that fine, fine line between ‘catchy’ and ‘cheesy’.

This record starts promisingly enough, with ‘Twist and Shout’ Aaaahs that overlap and ascend. But then, fifteen seconds in, a falsetto so high and piercing that it knocks you sideways arrives. Sugar baby love, Sugar baby lo-ove, I didn’t mean to make you blue… The singer is trying to suck up to his sweetheart, trying to apologise for an unspecified misdemeanour. If was them, I’d have stuck to a letter or a phone-call. You can imagine someone performing this outside a girl’s bedroom window at night – and hopefully getting the police called on them.

Yes, All lovers make, The same mistakes, As me and you… It is another sad milepost on glam rock’s descent into the hands of rock ‘n’ roll tribute acts. In 1974, Slade went harder, Bolan went experimental (and started missing the Top 10), while Bowie was starting to look towards soul sounds on ‘Young Americans’. The Rubettes know what side they’re on, though: the backing singers keep up a persistent shoo-waddywaddy, shoo-waddywaddy throughout (though Showaddywaddy themselves turned this track down when it was offered to them!)

And yet, I do have a very high-tolerance for cheesy pop. I can’t hate this song, no matter what it represents. My feet are tapping along quite happily. However, I have an extremely low tolerance for spoken word sections in pop songs and, of course, ‘Sugar Baby Love’ has to go there. People, Take my advice, If you love someone, Don’t think twice… **shudder**

The Rubettes were a group basically put together to promote this record, which had been recorded by session musicians (shades of Alvin Stardust). It had been written for the soundtrack of a rock ‘n’ roll, jukebox musical that never saw the light of day. Which means that singer Paul Da Vinci (not his actual name), whose falsetto makes such a statement in the intro, was never actually a member of the band. They had a few other hits, with titles like ‘Juke Box Jive’, which sound like filler from the ‘Grease’ soundtrack, and still tour to this day in various iterations, thanks to a big court case twenty or so years ago where all the members tried to get The Rubettes name for themselves… If I were them I’d have been fighting to become disassociated from it…

348. ‘Waterloo’, by ABBA

And entering, stage right: some genuine pop music legends.

Waterloo, by ABBA (their 1st of nine #1s)

2 weeks, from 28th April – 12th May 1974

Are ABBA the best pop group ever? Like, pure pop? Well, they get my vote. I will not hear a bad word spoken against them. And these days, you don’t often hear much bad spoken about ABBA – they’ve shaken off the image that they were fit only for gay bars and hen nights, and have assumed their rightful place in the pantheon. Everyone loves ABBA. But… I’m writing as if wrapping up their final chart-topper; not introducing their first. To business!

It is perfect, the manner in which Benny, Bjorn, Agnetha and Anni-Frid shoot out the blocks on their first #1. ‘Waterloo’ is not a record that takes its time to reveal its charms. It’s a wham, bam, thankyou ma’am sort of pop song. It won the Eurovision Song Contest, for God’s sake: a feat not often achieved through subtle means. The churning bass, the thumping piano… My, my! At Waterloo Napoleon did surrender…

For a band that specialised in camp melodrama, this opening line – comparing their love for someone to an 19th Century military leader’s last stand – is as camp and melodramatic as it comes. Oh yeah! And I have met my destiny in quite a similar way… Cue one of the catchiest choruses ever recorded: Waterloo! I was defeated you won the war, Waterloo, Promise to love you for ever more… (A big part of this song’s success, I think, is the way they pronounce the title in their Swedish accents: Wardahloo! With added emphasis on the ‘ooh’.)

It’s pointless looking for the hook here. The entire song is a two minute forty eight second long hook. The ridiculous saxophone licks, the woah-woah-woahs, the pounding piano ‘n’ drum intros to each chorus, something the band admits were ripped straight from Wizzard’s ‘See My Baby Jive’. ‘Waterloo’ is a huge, unashamed sugar rush of a song. Perfect, perfect pop.

In 1815, Napoleon Bonaparte was defeated once and for all, and exiled to the south Atlantic. In 1974, Agnetha and Anna-Frid give in and admit their love. As they put it in the song’s best line: So how can I ever refuse? I feel like I win when I lose! (The writers of ‘Mamma Mia – The Musical’ clearly gave up on trying to shoe-horn a song about a two-hundred year old battle into the story, and stuck in at the very, very end, as an encore.)

As a kid, this was my favourite track on ‘ABBA Gold’. It is no longer my favourite ABBA song, but it is the perfect first chart-topper for the band. They would go on to reach much greater heights of subtlety and sophistication; though it’s debatable whether they wrote a catchier hit. Meanwhile, it was also voted as the greatest Eurovision song for the contest’s 50th anniversary.

This hit proved to be a bit of a false start for ABBA, though. They struggled to follow ‘Waterloo’ up, in the UK at least, and we’ll have to wait almost two more years for their next #1. Once that arrives, however, there will be no looking back. It feels like we’ve entered a new phase in our journey through the chart-toppers… It’s the mid-seventies, and we’ve finally met the decade’s greatest band!

347. ‘Seasons in the Sun’, by Terry Jacks

From one mawkishly sentimental #1, to another…

Seasons in the Sun, by Terry Jacks (his 1st and only #1)

4 weeks, from 31st March – 28th April 1974

Let’s not pull any punches: this record is seen by many as one of the worst songs, ever. And I can understand why. From the opening riff, both ominous and irritating, to the nursery rhyme lyrics that don’t quite scan: Goodbye to you, My trusted friend, We’ve known each other since we were nine or ten…

It’s the swan-song of a dying man, a man who has lived quite a life: drinking, carousing, chasing girls… The self-confessed black sheep of the family. He lies upon his deathbed, smelling spring in the air, hearing children playing outside. There’s a verse for his friend, his father, and his daughter Michelle.

Jacks’ voice is perhaps the biggest problem here. It’s reedy, and at times sounds like bad impression of Kermit the frog. But it’s far from being the only problem… There’s an early key-change, and then another, and another, and another, until you’re left wondering if the song might continue until it’s reached a key that only dogs can hear. And then there are lines like: we skinned our hearts and skinned our knees… and like: but the stars we could reach were just starfish on the beach…

‘Seasons in the Sun’ is in many ways a terrible song. Saccharine, cloying, cheesy, simplistic… throw all these adjectives at it and they stick in the sentimental gloop. But I’ve never been able to hate it. I quite like this record. In reflective moments I picture myself singing it on my own deathbed… I find the Goodbye papa, It’s hard to die, When the birds are singing in the sky… line very moving, and a reminder of our own great insignificance in the grand scheme of things. The birds don’t give a shit if you live or die – they’ll go on singing regardless. And Jacks was inspired to write his version of the lyrics when one of his friends was diagnosed with terminal leukaemia, so that’s very sad.

In the right hands this could be a powerful song. Unfortunately the only other version I can think of is Westlife’s – a version we will meet atop the charts one day – and they are certainly not ‘the right hands’. The very first version had come in the early sixties as ‘Le Moribund’, in French, sung by Jacques Brel. In it the singer is ‘dying’ from a broken heart, and he sarcastically dedicates the final verse to the girlfriend that cheated on him. It sounds so unlike ‘Seasons in the Sun’ that you wouldn’t instantly connect them.

The first English version was recorded by folk act The Kingston Trio. It’s just as strident as Brel’s. Meanwhile, the Beach Boys were working on a version at the same time as Terry Jacks and his wife. Sadly it never saw the light of day. But what’s this I’ve found…? A demo version? By Nirvana? With Kurt Cobain mumbling, and making up half the lyrics, including a line about ‘foggy turds’…? Still not convinced they’re the right hands, but I like it…

Terry Jacks doesn’t quite make it as a one-hit wonder – his follow up to this chart-topper made #8. He lives in his native Canada, where he semi-retired from the music industry in the eighties, enjoying many a season in the sun, and where he has won several awards for his environmental campaigning.

346. ‘Billy – Don’t Be a Hero’, by Paper Lace

There are two things that never bode well at the start of a new #1 single: a marching band drumbeat, and whistling. And what do we have here… A new #1 single that begins with a marching band drumbeat and whistling.

Billy – Don’t Be a Hero, by Paper Lace (their 1st and only #1)

3 weeks, from 10th – 31st March 1974

Before starting this blog, I never for a moment suspected that songs about soldiers going to/coming back from war would be such a prominent sub-genre of #1s. I count four: ‘Lay Down Your Arms’, ‘Distant Drums’, ‘Two Little Boys’, ‘Yellow River’, and that’s just off the top of my head. Now make that five…

The marching band came down along Main Street, The soldier blues fell in behind… The song is sung not from the soldier’s POV, nor from his fiancé’s, but from that of a nameless observer. He sees the lovely fiancé begging her boy not to go: Billy, don’t be a hero, Don’t be a fool with your life… Come back and make me your wife…

To cut a long story short, or at least to paraphrase the second verse, Billy is just too darn heroic. He volunteers to ride out on a special, incredibly dangerous mission. The song doesn’t have to specify what happens next… There’s one obvious connection to make here, as there is with nearly all the ‘#1s about war’ – Vietnam. This hit the top as US involvement in the war was drawing to an end, and after most popular support for the conflict had died away.

And tellingly, when his fiancé gets the letter telling her of Billy’s death, and that she should be proud of him, she doesn’t get it framed, or keep it under her pillow… I heard she threw that letter away… Cue marching band, whistling, and a fade-out. It’s actually quite powerful, and it’s a shame the rest of the song sounds like something a window-cleaner would whistle while he works.

Away from songs about soldiers, other similar chart-topping subgenres include ‘men in prison/on death row’ and ‘men who die in car/plane crashes’. I say similar, because all three involve blokes doing brave, strong, manly things while their sweethearts pine all doe-eyed after them, and all three lend themselves to mawkish, sentimental ballads. ‘Billy – Don’t Be a Hero’ isn’t the worst of them, but it’s not the best either.

Paper Lace were a covers band from Nottingham, who had been around since the late sixties. They entered ‘Opportunity Knocks’ – the same talent show that gave us Peters & Lee – and were given this song to record as a result. (See, 2nd rate MOR, made for TV chart-toppers weren’t invented by ‘Pop Idol’ and ‘X Factor’!) They would have a handful more hits, one of which – ‘The Night Chicago Died’ – hit #1 in the US. (‘Billy…’ was also a US #1, but for a completely different band: Bo Donaldson & The Heywoods.) ‘Billy’ was Paper Lace’s biggest UK hit, and while it does have some nice glam-guitar flourishes to keep it sounding quite current, it commits the crime of fading without a final, rousing go at the chorus. Meh.

(The version in the video below and the version in my Spotify playlist differ, and I have no idea which is the original.