What’s that I hear? Tick, tick, tick, tick… Is it a clock racing to the turn of a decade? From the Fabulous Fifties to the Swinging Sixties? Tick, tick, tick, tick… Or is it just the intro to this next chart-topper?
What Do You Want to Make Those Eyes at Me For?, by Emile Ford and The Checkmates (their 1st and only #1)
6 weeks, from 18th December 1959 – 29th January 1960 (including 1 week joint with Adam Faith from 18th – 25th December 1959)
It begins with some ticks, and then the vocals swoop in. This is a Doo-Wop record in the truest sense: in that much of it consists of the backing singers – The Checkmates, presumably – going a-doo-wop bee doo be doo be doo-wop…
I love this song, I do. What with all the doo-wops, the key changes and the brilliant false ending I can’t see how anyone could fail to enjoy it. I first heard it on a compilation called ‘Don’t Stop – Doo Wop’, which must have been released in the early ‘90s and which I picked up in a second hand CD shop years ago. I think I mentioned it in my post on The Teenagers’ ‘Why Do Fools Fall in Love’, which also featured on it.
The lyrics, though, to ‘What Do You Want to Make Those Eyes at Me For?’ (abbreviated forever more into WDYWTMTEAMF because that is a hell of a title to type out in full)… Hmmm. Questionable. What do you wanna make those eyes at me for, If they don’t mean what they say… That sounds like the justifications of a sex pest: “She was askin’ for it, guv! Those eyes!” You’re foolin’ around with me now, We-ell you lead me on and then you run away… She does sound like a tease… Of course, during these enlightened #MeToo times, we know that no means no. In 1959 it was perhaps a different story. We-ell that’s alright, I’ll get you alone tonight… Ok… And baby you’ll find, You’re messing with dynamite… Oo-er. Sexual dynamite? Or is he just going to give the disobedient hussy a black eye?
I jest, I jest… I’m willing to give Emile Ford the benefit of the doubt, as he keeps this song the right side of jaunty throughout and, to be honest, you can listen to it several times – as I did – without ever noticing the slightly sinister lyrical undertones. And, in defence of the 1950s as a whole – a decade, don’t forget, in which certain professions were closed to women, in which hotels could stick ‘No Blacks, No Irish’ in their windows, in which gay men were being slung in jail, in which people could still be sentenced to hanging – there have been very few #1 singles that stand out as troublesome for the modern listener. Very few lyrics have veered away from the catchy or the bland. I’d perhaps nominate WDYWTMTEAMF and Guy Mitchell’s ‘She Wears Red Feathers’, from way back when (i.e. 1953) as being the most ‘of their time.’
As I mentioned in my last post, this disc was one of the last two records ever to share the top-spot in the UK charts. I suggested earlier that the death of the joint number one was due to a wider range of sales figures coming in but now I’ve just realised another theory: there will never be two such similarly titled #1 singles sitting at the top of the charts. Think about it: people go in to HMV looking to buy ‘What Do You Want?’ by Adam Faith, take a quick glance at the shelves, and come away with ‘What Do You Want to Make Those Eyes at Me For?’ by Emile Ford! Or vice-versa. Must have happened loads! Mystery solved.
WDYWTMTEAMF (that might actually be more of a pain to type than just writing it out in full) has quite the story, beyond this most famous of versions. It was written in 1916 (!) as a duet – in which the woman actually got to defend her wanton ways – and has been recorded by acts as varied as Shakin’ Stevens and former England, Barcelona and Tottenham manager Terry Venables. (Yes. Seriously.)
And so. We come to the end of the 1950s. And the start of the 1960s. Is this the last #1 record of the ‘50s, or the first of the ‘60s? Philosophical questions best left for another day. We are about to delve into a decade that will bring the most innovative pop ever recorded, the birth of modern rock, Merseybeat, Flower Power, psychedelica etc. and so on. So, I thought it might be interesting to gaze forward to the record that will be atop the charts on 31st December 1969, and to wonder at the advancements to come over the next ten years. Except. The final #1 of the sixties will be… ahem… ‘Two Little Boys’ by Rolf Harris. So… From a record with sex-offender lyrics to a record by an actual, convicted sex-offender. Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you the 1960s!
Let’s linger a while yet in the more innocent air of 1959, and end this post as Emile Ford (the first, and presumably only, St. Lucian to hit #1 in the UK – correct me if I’m wrong) ended his sole chart-topping hit. Possibly the best ending we’ve heard yet. One more time, then: a–doo-wop bee doo be doo be doo-wop be doo be doo be doo-wop be doo be doo be doo… Yeah!