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.

17 thoughts on “346. ‘Billy – Don’t Be a Hero’, by Paper Lace

  1. badfinger20 (Max)

    This one I heard when I was really young a lot. It stays with you long after the song goes off…and doesn’t go away. Only in the seventies could this have been a hit. I mean that is a good way.

    1. It’s a strange quirk, that their biggest hit in the UK was this, but the version that went to #1 in the US was sung by a completely different act. And then Paper Lace went and scored a US #1 anyway with ‘Chicago’…

  2. I like this more than I did at the time – plus like Alvin Paper Lace were local lads from a Mansfield point of view. It’s quite wistful, and I think the imagery makes it about the US Civil War (the USA a fave theme for British songwriters Callander/Murray, hitmakers galore of the 60’s & 70’s – see How Do You Do It?, The Ballad Of Bonnie & Clyde, I Like It, You Were Made For Me, not to mention producers of Yellow River and Amarillo, among many others).

    I’m quite fond of The Night Chicago Died too, they deserved it after being denied a US chart-topper by Bo Donaldson’s cover. The Youtube sounds slightly different, maybe it’s been remixed or re-recorded, I’m not sure – cheap budget recordings were all the rage in the 80’s for the burgeoning cd compilation market, to my huge annoyance they didn’t state they were re-recordings. This version sounds correct to my ears:

    1. The Civil War seems to be the default setting for most of the ‘war’ songs up to now – certainly this and Two Little Boys, maybe even Yellow River and Distant Drums. Perhaps because it was at a safe distance, whereas writing a song that was clearly about Vietnam would have been divisive.

      And yes, almost every version on YouTube is slightly different. They must have recorded it ten times, at least!

  3. Yes you have the original version on YouTube which is not always easy because they re-recorded it and that sounds very similar except one little tiny detail that gives it away. The original has a female vocal singing the line come back and make me your wife whereas she can’t have been available for the re-recording so they sang it themselves. Well done

      1. worth checking out the original as the female voice is a key ingredient to the goosebump moment (those of us that get them when listening to it:) ) – she was Joanne Stone, cousin of the great Madeline Bell of Blue Mink and a hundred backing singer hits. Joanne and her hubby had a hit with We Do It as R & J Stone in 1976, but she tragically died young in 1979.

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  5. I prefer the American version of “Billy, Don’t Be A Hero” mainly cause it sounds more professional and not as annoying and amateurish as Paper Lace’s version is and I like some of the melody but they’re both not that great. Paper Lace outside of their two big hits have probably the least impressive track record of any major band considering a lot of their other music isn’t widely available. Todd in the Shadows made a good point at how Paper Lace are a good example at how not to have a long lasting career by establishing no identity with your hits, making music that’s bound not to age well, and cutting ties with the people who made your success possible.

    1. They’re not a band I know anything about, beyond this song… I’m not sure they came into it with much of a plan – they won a talent show and maybe didn’t have much in the way of career guidance?

      1. It doesn’t help that there isn’t much public information about them aside from what you wrote but after breaking up in the 80s they regrouped into two different bands Paper Lace and Original 70s Paper Lace

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