For the third time this decade, and for the fifth time in all, the Christmas number one is an actual Christmas song. The previous two, from Slade and Mud, were very seventies, very glam. This one, though, could have been #1 at any point in chart history.
When a Child Is Born (Soleado), by Johnny Mathis (his 1st and only #1)
3 weeks, from 19th December 1976 – 9th January 1977
Let’s split this record in two, and start with the good half. It’s got that ‘classic standard’ feel to it, a sweeping melody of the kind that you think you must have always known. When the backing singers come in with the ah-ah-ah-aaahhs it’s quite sweet. Plus, Johnny Mathis sings it like the professional crooner that he is. A ray of hope, Flickers in the sky…
On to the bad bits… And let’s start with those lyrics. It’s all winds of change, silent wishes, brand new morns and rosy hews. It feels churlish to complain about soppy lyrics in a religious, Christmas-themed song. What kind of lyrics is it supposed to have? Except, I’m not religious, and it’s April. So there.
Plus, the production is very floaty, glossy, mid-seventies MOR goop. And there’s a stinker of a spoken section: The world is waiting, Waiting for one child… Black, white… yellow?No-one knows… It is what it is. I’m not going to knock it any more. Mathis means well, and I have fond memories of my late grandmother singing this by the tree after a sherry or three.
I had assumed that ‘When a Child Is Born’ would have been an old, old tune from the mists of time. But the melody, ‘Soleado’, was written for an Italian singer in 1972, while the English lyrics followed a few years later. It’s a skill, I guess, to write a song that sounds so timeless. Johnny Mathis had been around for a lot longer, releasing his first singles in the mid-fifties. He followed this up with ‘Too Much, Too Little, Too Late’, his first US #1 for almost twenty years. Some impressive longevity there. He’s still with us, aged eighty-five, having released his most recent album in 2017.
You will all be thrilled to hear that the 1970s, the decade of the Christmas #1, is not done with the festive tunes just yet. But that is some way off. Up next, we launch head-first into 1977, which marks the singles chart’s quarter century!
Listen to all the #1s from 1976, and from every year before, with this playlist:
In my last post, I wrote about how Chicago had forced me to take soft-rock seriously, to appreciate the subtlety, and the craft. ‘If You Leave Me Now’ was such a lovely, well-made song that it was beginning to work…
Under the Moon of Love, by Showaddywaddy (their 1st and only #1)
3 weeks, from 28th November – 19th December 1976
But here come Showaddywaddy to undo all their good efforts. There goes subtlety, flying out the window. In comes thumping, rollicking, primary-coloured rock ‘n’ roll. The 1950s, reimagined by a toddler on a sugar high. Without seeing a picture of the band, you can instantly imagine the comedy quiffs, and the colourful teddy-boy suits.
Let’s go for a little walk…! Under the moon of love…! I offer you these lyrics as lead singer Dave Bartram delivers them, with an emphatic exclamation mark after each line, after each word even: Let’s! Sit! Down and talk! Under the moon of love…! He’s having a great time with this song, which means the listener – as long as they’re willing to leave their musical snobbishness at the door – enjoys themselves by the same measure.
I hate the concept of ‘guilty pleasures’. But, yes. ‘Under the Moon of Love’ is prime guilty pleasures material. ‘If You Leave Me Now’ is an objectively better piece of music, but I am enjoying this record ten times more. It’s fun, dammit! What I wouldn’t give for Showaddywaddy to invade the po-faced charts of 2021!
You were lookin’ so lovely… (Uh-huh-huh)… Because nothing says late-fifties doo-wop-slash-rock-n-roll like a well-placed ‘uh-huh-huh’… Under the moon of love! If you were being unkind, you could claim this as the final nail in glam rock’s coffin, the final fart of the corpse. The sound that can be dated right to the very start of this decade, in ‘Spirit in the Sky’ and ‘I Hear You Knocking’s fried guitar, through the huge-hitters like T Rex, Slade, Wizzard and The Sweet, down through Mud’s dancing, Gary Glitter’s prancing and The Rubettes’ falsettos. To this silly slice of rock ‘n’ roll revival.
Though to be fair, Showaddywaddy had been around since glam’s heyday, when their debut ‘Hey Rock and Roll’ peaked at #2. Since then they had revived Buddy Holly’s ‘Heartbeat’, and Eddie Cochran’s ‘Three Steps to Heaven’, while this, their only #1, kicked off a run of seven straight Top 5 hits lasting well into 1978, long after most of the big glam acts had fallen from the charts. They are still a-rocking to the this day, after a few line-up changes, on the oldies circuit.
As well as Eddie Cochran, they brought back the Kalin Twins’ ‘When’, and ‘Blue Moon’. But perhaps ‘Under the Moon of Love’ was the one that went all the way to the top simply because it wasn’t a big hit first time around. It was originally recorded by Curtis Lee in 1961, making #46 on the Billboard 100. It’s slightly better, in the way that originals usually are, while it was produced by an up and coming chap called Phil Spector.
Finally, Showaddywaddy’s turn at the top means we’ve now had a seven-piece (Pussycat), and two eight-pieces (Chicago and Showaddywaddy) atop the charts. Late ’76 seeing a reinvention of the term ‘big band’. But that run is about to come to an end, for the year’s final chart-topper is by a solo act. And I know it’s April, but we’re about to get a little festive…
The term ‘soft rock’ is one that makes me squirm. It’s not my favourite genre – I like my rock to, well, rock (*devil horns emoji*) – and soft rock can feel like rock ‘n’ roll with all the fun stripped away. But, as the late seventies loom, it is a genre we may have to get used at the top of the charts.
If You Leave Me Now, by Chicago (their 1st and only #1)
3 weeks, from 7th – 28th November 1976
Anyway, I say that soft rock is ‘often’ no fun – dull, earnest and very vanilla – but not ‘always’. For sometimes there are soft rock hits like this one. ‘If You Leave Me Now’ is a record that makes you feel as if you are being dipped in a vat of warm, melted chocolate. It is a big hug of a song, possibly the ultimate last-dance-of-the-night disc.
If you leave me now, You’ll take away the biggest part of me… the singer croons, but not in a Bing Crosby way. A creamier, more modern style of crooning. Then, prepare your falsettos: Ooh-ooh-ooh no, Baby please don’t go… There are soft horns, and strings, and a guitar being gently plucked.
The singer is pleading with his lover, not to be rash, or hasty. Not to do what they’ll regret in the morning. A love like ours is love that’s hard to find… How could we let it slip away…? He’s trying to lull his partner into staying, by stupefying her with this impossibly gentle, lush music. It’s a lullaby, really, for want of a better description.
Which means I shouldn’t be enjoying this song, not really. I should find it slow, and dull. But, while it hasn’t made me a fully converted soft-rock, MOR fan; you can’t deny a record this well-made and performed. What makes it even more impressive, is that with this type of music it is so easy to overdo the schmaltz (think Engelbert doing his worst on ‘Release Me’, or even Pussycat laying the cheese on a bit thick in the previous #1). Chicago pitch it just right, and create a classic of the genre.
I’m sure I recall an advert from ten/fifteen years back, in which an animated cherry lip-synced to this song. Or I may have dreamt it, and urgently need said dream analysed by a professional. If the advert does exist, then it’s a sign of how ‘If You Leave Me Now’ has softly slipped ‘tween the sheets of our shared consciousness. I’d bet most people could sing along to the chorus on this one, and I’d also wager it’s still on heavy-rotation on Magic and Smooth FM. It’s been covered by our friends Brotherhood of Man, the Isley Brothers, and Boyz II Men, twice.
Chicago were – are – from Chicago, Illinois. I love the confidence of that: screw it, we’ll just name ourselves after our hometown, which just happens to be the 3rd biggest city in the country. I know very little about them, other than that their albums are almost all titled as numbers (this was off ‘Chicago X’, their tenth album). As of 2018, they are a ten-piece with three original members still hanging on in there, on album XXXVII.
To finish, I’d like to note the fun coincidence of having a song named after a US state knocked off top spot by a band named after a US city. How cool’s that? That’s the sort of analysis you won’t be getting anywhere else. Onwards…
Following on from ‘Dancing Queen’ is a daunting task, but someone had to do it. In the autumn of 1976, that task fell to Pussycat, and their sole #1 record, ‘Mississippi’.
Mississippi, by Pussycat (their 1st and only #1)
4 weeks, from 10th October – 7th November 1976
It’s a gentle intro, a slice of soft country rock, that puts me in mind of the Eagles at their blandest, or Matthews Southern Comfort’s ‘Woodstock’ from earlier in the decade. In the past year or so, country and western has become something of an established presence at the top of the charts, from Tammy Wynette to J.J. Barrie to this…
But when the vocals come in, we move from country to schmaltzy. Well you can hear a country song from far, When someone plays a honky-tonk guitar… It’s a tribute to country music, an ode to the genre, and a love-letter to the USA’s most famous river. Mississippi, I remember you… Whenever I should go away, I’ll be longing for the day…
It’s the sort of song that you start to forget before it’s even finished. It’s very gentle, a pleasant enough stroll down the middle of the road, but it’s a bit dull. It makes you yearn for ABBA… But that’s not fair. We can’t go comparing songs to what went before! It is too long, though. I’ll state that with conviction. Times were four and a half minutes was record-breaking; now it seems to be the standard.
By the end, the band are bemoaning the fact that rock ‘n’ roll took over from C&W. The country song forever lost its soul, When the guitar player turned to rock and roll… Except, that’s patently not true. Rock ‘n’ roll was born from country (and jazz and the blues) – rock ‘n’ roll is country – plus here we are, with a country song at number one… So it can’t be that dead. We flutter to a finish, and I remain underwhelmed.
Pussycat were a Dutch band – which perhaps explains the schlager-heavy feel that this record has (they also, perhaps inevitably, recorded a version in German.) They were a seven piece, with what looks like three girls and four boys… (To be fair, they all have long hair and frills in the pictures I can find!) The best way I can describe them is like looking at a picture of ABBA after you’ve had a blow to the head. Still, they officially make 1976 the year of the mixed-gender pop group, after Brotherhood of Man and our aforementioned Swedes.
‘Mississippi’ was written by the band with the Bee Gees ‘Massachusetts’ in mind, and you can really hear the influence. Plus, it gives us our second #1 single named after a US State (and I’m happy to hear suggestions of others to come/that I’ve missed). They scored one more minor hit in the UK following this, but remained big in the Netherlands well into the ‘80s.
To finish, I think I have to crown ‘Pussycat’ as the worst band name to feature on this blog. It’s just… a ‘no’ from me. And Spotify seems to agree, as they have erroneously grouped this group’s back-catalogue with a trip-hop group of the same name, who’s last album was titled ‘Sexy Bondage Domination’…
As a kid my first exposure to ABBA was through ‘ABBA Gold’, the band’s early-nineties greatest hits, track 1 on which is ‘Dancing Queen’. The CD would slide in, there would be that second of scanning, the little whirr… and then bam!
Dancing Queen, by ABBA (their 4th of nine #1s)
6 weeks, from 29th August – 10th October 1976
It’s not the first song you’d think of if asked to name ‘Great Intros’, but it should be. It is a record that strides into the room – the glissando is the door slamming open – with complete confidence. ‘ABBA’s here!’, it announces, ‘With their biggest hit!’ Then the vocals come in, and it’s not just the chorus, but the middle of the chorus, the main hook, thrown out within the first twenty seconds: You can dance, You can ji-ive, Having the time of your life…
I know nothing about musical terms – I can barely tell a pre-chorus from a bridge – but whatever it is that ABBA do in the verses, at the end of every second line, when the key slips lower: Lookin’ out for a place to go… and You’ve come to look for a King… It’s gold. Then they do the opposite, swooping up on the Night is young and the music’s hi-igh… And it’s even better. It’s pure ABBA, in that most other songwriters might think it a bit obvious, going higher on the word ‘high’, while Benny and Bjorn simply shrug and say ‘nope, that’ll be catchy!’
‘Dancing Queen’ doesn’t need me to sell it. It also probably doesn’t need to be written about any more, but hey, I gotta cover them all. Throughout this blog, I’ve referred to ‘Perfect Pop’ when writing about #1s like ‘Stupid Cupid’, ‘Cathy’s Clown’, and ‘See My Baby Jive’. Up until this point, I would have had ‘She Loves You’ as the most perfect pop moment so far. But ‘Dancing Queen’ usurps The Beatles to take, if you’ll pardon the pun, the crown. A crown I’m not sure it’ll ever relinquish.
Why is that? What makes this the ultimate pop song? I think it’s the nugget of sadness beating away at the heart of the record. The main character is a seventeen-year-old girl who seems to be running away from something. She doesn’t know where she’s going, or who she’s going to be dancing with… It doesn’t sound as if she’s got any friends with her. She flirts with one guy, she leaves them burning and then she’s gone… Or maybe not. Maybe I’m misreading it completely! Maybe she’s really just having the time of her life. Maybe she doesn’t need a boy, or a friend. Maybe she just needs to dance. To dance for the sheer joy of it!
Either way, the song has layers, ones that you’re still noticing even after hearing it for the three hundredth time. I could complain about ‘Dancing Queen’ being overplayed, and it is, but when a DJ sticks this on at a party nobody sits down, even though they’re hearing it for the three hundredth and first time. Last time I was a tourist in London, watching the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace, the band played the chorus of ‘Dancing Queen’ as the soldiers marched past.
Of course this record got to number one. ‘Dancing Queen’ is the dictionary definition of a number one hit. If you’re ever on ‘Pointless’ and the category is ‘#1 Singles of the 1970s’, don’t give ‘Dancing Queen’ as an answer. In the US it was ABBA’s one and only chart-topper (shame on you, America!) My only surprise stems from the fact that, in the UK, it took two weeks to climb to the top. If ever a song was going to enter in pole position, I’d have thought it would have been this. Click. Glissando. Bam.
And so, Sir Elton John belatedly takes the stage. Much like Bowie, who finally made #1 a few months before, we’ve already missed a lot of his best stuff. But hey – better late than never. Plus, this is still a pop classic.
Don’t Go Breaking My Heart, by Elton John (his 1st of seven #1s) & Kiki Dee (her 1st and only #1)
6 weeks, from 18th July – 29th August 1976
Don’t go breaking my heart… I couldn’t if I tried… It’s a proper duet, with the singers taking different lines. Finishing one another’s lines, in fact, like an irritatingly cute couple. Oh honey if I get restless… Baby you’re not that kind… It’s the first duet to top the charts since, um, Windsor Davies and Don Estelle. Or, if you’re looking for a non-novelty duet, you’ll have to go back to Serge and Jane, or Esther and Abi Ofarim… Ahem. The point being – genuine duets like this don’t come along too often.
I’m surprised, to be honest, just how disco this record is. It’s usually background noise, a seventies ‘Best Of’ staple, and I’d have put it down as pure pop with a nod towards classic Motown. But listening properly, you can hear that the guitars, the drums and the strings are all set to ‘Disco’. Plus, it’s got the perfect rhythm for hand-jiving.
Woohooo… Nobody knows it…. That hook cements ‘Don’t Go Breaking My Heart’s place as a gem. Is it as good as, say, ‘Rocket Man’? No, obviously not. Unlike David Bowie, Elton isn’t breaking his chart-topping duck with an all-time classic. (In fact, like Bowie, and Queen, who we’ve also met recently, Elton John is very poorly served by his #1 singles.) Still, it’s a fun record, and a karaoke classic, despite being much longer than it has any need to be, at four and a half minutes.
As for Elton’s partner in this… Who was Kiki Dee? Turns out she was the first British female to sign for Tamla Motown, which is pretty impressive. She had scored a few minor chart placings before this mega-hit, then she scored a few more minor ones in the years that followed, until she re-teamed with Elton in 1993, for #2 hit ‘True Love’. She’s still around, releasing albums and working in musical theatre. (Apparently her part in ‘Don’t Go Breaking…’ was written with Dusty Springfield in mind, but she was too sick to record it. No offence to Kiki, who sings it very well, but just imagine how darned iconic this would have been as Elton & Dusty…)
Then there’s the artist formerly known as Reg… Wonder what became of him? Well, amazingly, we won’t meet him again atop this countdown until 1990, when he will finally get a solo chart-topper! It’s not that he lacked hits – this record was his 10th Top 10 hit since breaking through with ‘Your Song’, and he would continue to have hits throughout the eighties – just that for whatever reason they rarely made it all the way to the top.
Till then, then, Elton. Before we go, though, it’s worth pausing to remembering that, as the follow-up to ‘True Love’, ‘Don’t Go Breaking My Heart’ returned to the charts, at #7, in a very ‘90s house version. Elton’s duetting partner on that occasion: RuPaul Charles.
*Cue David Attenborough voice* And so we spy one of the rarest of chart-topping species. The EP. The Extended Play. More than a single; not quite an album… One of only four to ever top the UK charts…
The Roussos Phenomenon (EP), by Demis Roussos (his 1st and only #1)
1 week, from 11th – 18th July 1976
I’m not sure how to approach this record. With a normal single I always ignore the ‘B’-side. With double ‘A’-sides I do both songs. Should I do all four tracks from ‘The Roussos Phenomenon’?? Best get cracking! The lead single from this EP, the one that went to radio, was ‘Forever and Ever’. A cover, I wonder, of the Slik hit from the start of the year…? No, but Lord how I wish it was…
Demis Roussos has a distinctive voice. High-pitched yet husky, and very strained. It is a spectacular voice; but it doesn’t make for a relaxing listen. Ever and ever, Forever and ever, You’ll be the one… he wails as a Muzak backing-track waltzes along. That shines in me, Like the morning sun… It’s lush, it fills the speakers… It’s a bit much; but at the same time it’s bland mulch. It’s a very strange juxtaposition: a song that’s so in your face and yet so forgettable.
You can really tell that English isn’t Roussos’s first language as he reaches for the line: Take me from beyond imagination… and his voice trembles under its own mighty power. ABBA’s slight mispronunciations are endearing; here they jar. Then in comes a bouzouki (?) and suddenly it sounds like the soundtrack to a first date in a Greek restaurant. Knowing that I have four songs to get through, I’m tempted to press skip before the first listen is over…
Next up, ‘Sing an Ode to Love’, which as a title doesn’t promise anything different to what went before. But it is different. ‘Forever and Ever’ was bland… This is God-awful. Organs, and a marching beat. His voice grates even more, trembling and straining as if he has a terrible case of indigestion. See the children playing, Hear the sounds of virgin minds… He’s going for an epic statement here, when the choir comes in, but it’s so bad I think most countries would reject this even for Eurovision. Sing a song so clearly, Make the words rise up above…
The song it reminds me of – and I really am embarrassed to drag Roy Orbison into this, forgive me – is ‘Running Scared’. But whereas that classic builds to a perfect, dramatic conclusion; this builds to a horrible of crescendo of Demis’s grasping and some tacky synths. And so ends Side A.
For the sake of completion, here are my thoughts on Side B of our debut chart-topping EP. I have to search for ‘So Dreamy’ on YouTube, and am glad that I did, because it meant I could discover the video attached below, in which our Greek God belts it out by a harbour front. The cheap synths are still there, as are the over-bearing backing singers, but I’m enjoying this a lot more, with its bossanova rhythm… How was I to know, That from our very first ‘hello’, I’d feel so dreamy… I can begin to see why he’s been described as an ‘unlikely kaftan-wearing sex symbol’…
And then we end this, um, experience with ‘My Friend the Wind’, and any goodwill I was beginning to feel for Demis Roussos is dashed. It feels like a hymn. My friend the wind, Will come from the hills… All the by now classic Roussos elements are present: strained vocals, ropey synths, an over-reliance on backing singers… But at least the middle-eight is interesting, as the bouzouki returns and we are back in the Greek taverna. You can almost hear the plates smashing with each beat. It ends in a Greek knees-up. La-la-la-leyleyleyley…
Goodness, that was a slog. And the scary thing is, these four songs were handpicked as excerpts from ‘The Roussos Phenomenon’ LP. I shudder to think what they decided wasn’t good enough. Still, for whatever reason, this disc delivered him his only UK chart-topper. He had been a big solo star in Europe since the early seventies, with #1s in France, Holland, Switzerland and Germany, among others. The final push he had needed to breakthrough in the UK came from a documentary, also called ‘The Roussos Phenomenon’, that inspired this E.P., and the fact that more and more Brits were holidaying in places like Greece, and getting a taste for the music there.
But it didn’t last. His last charting single in Britain came just one year later. Roussos had been, however, part of influential prog-rock band Aphrodite’s Child, who had had a Top 30 hit back in 1968 and whose fellow member Vangelis would go on to win an Oscar for the ‘Chariots of Fire’ soundtrack. So, actually, there’s a lot more going on in this one-week wonder than the turgid music. Our first (our only?) Greek chart-topper, our first EP, the first time two songs with the same name have made #1 in the same year… But to be honest I’m well over this entry, and ready to move on to the next two, humongously famous, number one singles…
Kicking off the next thirty, and we’re back down the discotheque. Normal service has resumed.
You to Me Are Everything, by The Real Thing (their 1st and only #1)
3 weeks, from 20th June – 11th July 1976
This is a tune, and I mean that in the most literal sense. It is an ear-worm, that burrows its way into your head. But not in an irritating, ‘Birdie Song’ kind of way. It’s soulful, cool, funky… take your pick of mid-seventies adjectives. There are strings, and disco guitars. The glitter-ball is a-swirling. I would take the stars out of the sky for you… Stop the rain from falling if you asked me to…
If I were to write a book on the perfect pop song (despite being unable to read sheet music or play a single instrument…) I’d cite this record as an example in Chapter One. It’s as if it’s been custom designed in a lab. Stupid lovey-dovey lyrics- check. I can move a mountain when your hand is in my hand… One hell of a hook – check. Now you’ve got the best of me, Come on and take the rest of me… Key change – check. Backing vocals that come in at just the right moment – check.
I love the bridge: You give me just a taste of love, To build my hopes upon… (Except, it comes after what I think is the chorus, so… Can it still be called a bridge? I’m really proving here exactly why I shouldn’t author a book on the perfect pop song.) Whatever it is, it is a perfect pop moment.
And yet… Is it a little too perfect? Too polished? Probably, yes. Does it play it safe? Definitely. Are the lyrics trite? Oh yeah. Does the grammar in the title-line sound like something Yoda would say? You to me are everything… Yep. (Sorry, it’s the teacher in me.) But, as with all perfect pop, from The Monkees to ABBA, from Kylie to Gaga, we suspend our disbelief. We recognise its inherent silliness; but we dance regardless.
I can see why this was a huge hit. It was also on heavy rotation during Long Family Car Journeys as a kid. But, I can’t love it. Again speaking as a teacher: the perfect kids are never your favourites. So it is with songs…. Still, ‘You to Me Are Everything’ has lived on in cover versions by acts as diverse as Sonia, X-Factor contestant Andy Abraham (the bin-man), and Frankie Valli.
This was The Real Thing’s breakthrough hit, after several years of trying. They were a Liverpool band, and been around since 1970, but had never even charted before this one shot straight to the top. Formed in 1970, they had toured with David Essex, while one of their members – Eddie Amoo – had been on the scene since the Merseybeat days and had shared a stage with The Beatles. The follow-up to this made #2, but the hits dried up fairly quickly. Still, they weren’t averse to a remix, and ‘You to Me…’ made the Top 5 again in the mid-eighties. Their most recent Top 10 hit was in 2005, as a sample on single by House act Freeloaders.
After wading through waist-deep treacle on J. J. Barrie’s ‘No Charge’, and barely making it through with our sanity intact, are we really ready for another novelty single to top the charts? Actually, yes. We are.
The Combine Harvester (Brand New Key), by The Wurzels (their 1st and only #1)
2 weeks, from 6th – 20th June 1976
This. This is how you do a novelty song. It is an absolute palate-cleanser after what went before. We’ve got banjos and country-bumpkin accents, a raucous music hall chorus and a relentless oompah beat. Ladies and Gentlemen: our first ever ‘Scrumpy & Western’ chart-topper!
I drove my tractor through your haystack last night, I threw me pitchfork at your dog to keep quiet… A rustic, pastoral picture is painted. The rolling hills and golden fields of Somerset hove into view. Meanwhile, a man is proposing marriage, but not for the most romantic of reasons. I’ve got twenty acres, And you’ve got forty-three… Now I’ve got a brand new combine harvester, And I’ll give you the key…
Personally, and I think I speak for a large part of the British population when I say this, I can’t hear the words ‘combine harvester’ without this playing in my head. As a song it might not be on heavy rotation these days, but its chorus lives on. And, in the finest music hall tradition, there’s a strong undercurrent of smut here… Aar, Yer a fine lookin’ woman, An I can’t wait to get me hands on yer land! (Fnarr, fnarr)
Actually, if you think that this is actually about a grain-harvesting device, then you’re more innocent than you look. The Wurzels, though, sell it with a nudge and a wink, and glug of your cider. ‘The Combine Harvester’ is everything ‘No Charge’ wasn’t (although I have to admit that I might not have been so kind on this record had J. J. Barrie not done his worst directly before).
There’s a bit of history behind this one. It’s a parody of a hit from 1971 – ‘Brand New Key’, by Melanie Safka, a US #1 no less – and had been a hit in Ireland for Irish comedian Brendan Grace (who would, twenty years later, steal the show in an episode of ‘Father Ted’ – he had his fun, and that’s all that mattered…) The Wurzels scrumpy-fied it and scored an unlikely smash hit.
In a bittersweet moment, this biggest of hits came shortly after The Wurzels (‘Wurzel’ means ‘yokel’ in the Somerset dialect) had lost their founder Adge Cutler in a car crash. They followed this up with the equally catchy/daft ‘I’m a Cider Drinker’, and have been around ever since. Most recently they’ve been releasing covers albums. If you’ve enjoyed this slice of silliness, and are wondering what a Wurzeled version of Oasis’s ‘Don’t Look Back in Anger’, the Kaiser Chief’s ‘Ruby’, or even Pulp’s ‘Common People’, might sound like, well you’re in luck…
Next up, a recap!
Catch up with all the #1s so far, with my playlist:
I do like approaching a song I’ve never heard before. The anticipation. The tension. The wondering… What will this next #1 bring?
No Charge, by J. J. Barrie (his 1st and only #1)
1 week, from 30th May – 6th June 1976
My anticipation starts to sour the second I press play. This is, I can confirm, a country and western number. A honky-tonk piano leads us in. And then, oh dear, there’s talkin’. Now our little boy came up to his momma in the kitchen this evening, While she was fixing supper… The boy has itemised his chores for the week: $1 for taking out the trash, $2 for raking the yard, an eye-watering $5 dollars for mowing the lawn… Total load: $14.75…
Where is this song going next, I wonder. Is this presumptuous little brat going to get a clip around the ear? No. He is not. (That would have been a song I could have got behind.) Instead, mum turns the list over, and begins to write: For the nine months I carried you, Growing inside me… No charge… For the nights I’ve sat up with you, Doctored and prayed for you… No charge…
In the background, a gospel-lite singer is hammering home the message: When you add it all up, The full cost of my love is ‘no charge’… while the queasy feeling in my stomach grows, and grows. This is painful. Truly painful. Lines like: For the toys, food and clothes… And even for wiping your nose… thump down your ears. Is it meant to be funny? Is it meant to be touching? Is it meant to prescribed by pharmacists to induce vomiting?
Mum finishes writing, and looks at her son. Please, I think, throw a tantrum or something, you little shit. Save this song from its saccharine conclusion. But, no. He has tears in his eyes as he tells his ma that he sure does love her. He writes ‘paid in full’ in great big letters. You see, as J. J. Barrie informs us: When you add it all up, The cost of real love’s ‘no charge’…
This is, in case that write-up was a little too ambiguous, a truly awful piece of music. At a stroke one of the Top 3 worst songs we’ve met on this countdown, if not the winner. I have a high tolerance for cheese, for silliness, for camp throwaway pop… ‘No Charge’ is neither cheesy, nor silly nor camp. It is teeth-clenchingly earnest. There are no tongues in cheeks here. Barrie sounds like a preacher. The backing singer sounds like she’s singing the holiest of hymns. The strings are deadly serious, too. They all seem to believe, unconditionally, in the crap they are serving up. Maybe if it were sung by a woman, by the mum in the song, then, maybe, maybe, it would work better. As it is, it’s a smug story of motherhood as seen and interpreted by a smug-sounding man.
All songs, thankfully, must end. Phew. That was horrendous. J. J. Barrie is a certified one-hit wonder in the UK. I know nothing of his career beyond this single, and have no desire to investigate.* This wasn’t the original version of ‘No Charge’, which had been taken to #39 (and #1 on the Country charts) in the US by Melba Montgomery (great name, at least!) in 1974. Barrie is still alive, still living in Canada, but hasn’t recorded any new music since the ‘80s.
Looking forward, trying to block out the horrors we have just witnessed, I’m one more chart-topper away from a recap! And at least choosing a ‘Worst Chart-topper’ won’t be too difficult this time around.
*That was until I found out he discovered that he recorded a single with Nottingham Forest manager Brian Clough, ‘You Can’t Win ‘Em All’, in 1980. (Go on, click the link. It is every bit as bad as you imagine!)