416. ‘Mull of Kintyre’ / ‘Girls’ School’, by Wings

It is amazing to think that, almost eight years on from their split, this is only the second time an ex-Beatle has appeared at the top of the charts. You’d have got long odds on it taking this length of time. George Harrison got in there quickly, and then there was a big old wait… Until our latest Christmas #1.

Mull of Kintyre / Girls’ School, by Wings (their 1st and only #1)

9 weeks, from 27th November 1977 – 29th January 1978

And it’s strangely comforting to hear Macca’s voice again, like a long lost friend… Mull of Kintyre, Oh mist rolling in from the sea, My desire, Is always to meet you… It’s just him, and a couple of guitars. Simplicity itself. Until ninety seconds in, when the bagpipes arrive (I always assumed they were saved for the finale. Alas, no.) They enter with that unmistakeable, ominous drone, and by the three minute mark they are the stars of the show. It is amazing to think that, in the 1970s, as many #1 singles featured bagpipes as featured a Beatle.

‘Mull of Kintyre’ is not an old folk song, though it sounds for all the world as if it should be. It is further evidence of McCartney’s ability to conjure timeless pop from a few chords (and a cheeky slice of ‘Auld Lang Syne’). It is not ‘Yesterday’, nor is it ‘Eleanor Rigby’, but it is a huge moment in his legacy. And yet…

As a Scot, part of me bristles at this act of cultural appropriation… (You may roll your eyes, but hear me out.) It’s a nice song, a sweet melody, a love-letter by Paul to his adopted home (he really was living, while he wrote this, on the Mull of Kintyre). But the lines about mist rolling in from the sea and sweeping through the heather like deer in the glen… It’s the aural equivalent of a souvenir shortbread box. It’s Scotland as imagined by American, or Japanese, (or Liverpudlian) tourists. It’s #notmyscotland. You can also imagine John Lennon hearing this for the first time, on the radio one morning, and ruefully shaking his head…

Still, come the drum-roll and the key change, ‘Mull of Kintyre’ has wormed its way into your brain. You can see why this is was a ginormous hit – a song that appeals to five-year-olds, ninety-five-year olds, and anyone who’s had enough whisky. Its nine weeks at the top makes it the joint longest running #1 of the decade, alongside ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ and an upcoming movie soundtrack hit. It became the biggest selling single ever in the UK, usurping ‘She Loves You’, and it remains the biggest selling non-charity single ever released.

I did wonder if, by hitting #1 in late November, this was the earliest an Xmas #1 had made it to the top. But it’s not even close. Al Martino got there two weeks earlier in 1952, as did Clean Bandit in 2016, while Elvis’s ‘It’s Now or Never’ holds the record by holding on from November 3rd. However, this record also stayed top for over a month after Christmas thanks, it seems, to the flip-side…

‘Girls’ School’ is a rocker, all scuzzy slide guitars and heavy drums, as far removed from the faux-folk of ‘Mull of Kintyre’ as can be. SongFacts describes it as ‘semi-pornographic’, and that’s putting it mildly. While your grandma would have enjoyed singing along to ‘Mull…’, she may have choked on her sherry when she heard this one. Sleepy head kid sister, Lying on the floor, Eighteen years and younger boy, Well she knows what she’s waitin’ for…

It seems the nuns have lost control of the convent school… Yuki, the resident mistress and oriental princess, is showing porn in the classroom. The Spanish nurse is running a full-body massage parlour, while the matron is drugging the kids in their beds at night, and then… Well that much is left to the imagination… Ah, what can the sisters do…?

I’m loving-yet-appalled-by this post-‘Mull…’ palate cleanser. It is pure rock ‘n’ roll, both in terms of its sound and its lyrical content (which would come under, shall we say… ‘scrutiny’ were it released in 2021). I think someone was having a good old chuckle to themselves when they stuck this alongside such a shamelessly sentimental ‘A’-side. It does seem, too, that McCartney may have swept it under the carpet in recent years. It’s not on Spotify, for a start.

Although this is his first #1 since The Beatles, it’s not as if Paul had been hiding under a rock since ‘Let It Be’. Wings were a huge chart force throughout the seventies, featuring Paul, his wife Linda, Denny Laine (whom we have heard from before as a member of The Moody Blues) and a rotating cast of supporters. This was their 10th Top 10 hit, but the only one to go all the way. Macca will be back, though, in the 80s, with a couple of chart-toppers to make ‘Mull of Kintyre’ sound like the epitome of cool, cutting edge pop.

398. ‘When a Child Is Born (Soleado)’, by Johnny Mathis

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:

382. ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, by Queen

I have to admit, I’ve been putting off writing this entry. I mean, A) How do you say anything about ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ that hasn’t been said before? And B) When are you ever in the mood to sit and listen to it on repeat? (Though actually, I could probably play this one from beginning to end, in my head, from memory…)

Bohemian Rhapsody, by Queen (their 1st of six #1s)

9 weeks, from 23rd November 1975 – 25th January 1976

I can remember hearing this record for the first time. That must mean something, right? That must be proof of this song’s place in our lives? I was at the kitchen table, aged seven or so, playing with some Lego, and my dad was playing this, loud. And singing. My dad does not normally play music loud, or sing. So seven-year-old me sat up and took notice. What was this record that had turned my father into a headbanger?

Is this the real life, Is this just fantasy…? If I had to rate the three parts (or is it four?) of ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, the first would be my favourite. Freddie’s voice… Mama, Just killed a man… and his luxuriant piano. The singer is haunted by his past, his crimes, and is setting out alone. Mama, Ooh-ooooh-ooh… If that was it, if this were a three-minute ballad, it’d still be great. But, of course, that is not it. ‘Tis but the amuse-bouche.

In comes Brian May, with the most outrageous piece of guitaristry in a #1 single since ‘Voodoo Chile’, and then… You know what comes next. This is the bit I remember hearing as a kid. You do have to step back and applaud the fact that the band managed to sandwich this bit into a pop single. In terms of the story, it represents, I think, the singer’s inner torment at what he’s done. Beelzebub, Has a devil put aside, For ME!

Then comes the head-banging section, the Wayne’s World bit, my second favourite part. It’s proper hard rock, almost heavy metal – a sound that we have very rarely heard in any of the previous 381 chart-toppers. ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ really is a deeply strange strong, and a bizarre #1. But it is also so much a part of the furniture that people no longer stop to wonder what the hell it’s about. Is it a tale of a Faustian pact? Is it Mercury coming to terms with his sexuality? Or is it, as the band maintain, all nonsense?

And, for then the coda, it’s back to Freddie and his piano. The clincher. Any way the wind blows… Done, and exhale. The stories around the song’s recording and release are well-known: the record execs’ reluctance, Kenny Everett playing it on repeat… I enjoyed the scene in the recent movie – a movie that wasn’t as bad as everyone made out – where the band wonder if Freddie’s lost his mind while recording the Galileo! Galileo! part.

People always name ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ as one of the longest songs ever, and certainly one of the longest #1s. But it’s barely six minutes long, and feels even shorter, ranking it pretty far down the ‘long number ones’ list. Even ‘I’m Not In Love’, from earlier in 1975, went on for ten seconds more. What was long was its stay at the top of the charts. No record has spent nine weeks at #1 since ‘Rose Marie’ managed eleven, twenty years back. Add to that the fact that it will be back on top shortly after Freddie Mercury’s death, and we’re looking at one of the longest-running #1s, ever.

In my post on ‘Space Oddity’ – isn’t it amazing to think that these two classic records so nearly met one another atop the charts! – I named David Bowie as an artist woefully represented by his chart-toppers. Well, to that short list add Queen, who will only have two more before they lose their frontman, and then descend into some highly questionable duets by the turn of the century. All that to come…

Anyway, after I wrap this up I will go back to never choosing to listening to ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, just hearing it by osmosis (and when forced to join in with it at karaoke nights…) I don’t hate it – it is an amazing piece of music – and yet I think it works best as a memory, of me aged seven, staring open-mouthed at my dad moshing around the living-room.

362. ‘Lonely This Christmas’, by Mud

And so we reach, and pass, the midway point of the 1970s. But not with a song that faces forward, pointing the way into a bright new sonic future. Oh no, this next hit draws heavily, very heavily, a little too heavily, on what went before…

Lonely This Christmas, by Mud (their 2nd of three #1s)

4 weeks, from 15th December 1974 – 12th January 1975

Bum-bum-bum-bum… Finally, Christmas in the real world and Christmas in my countdown coincide. Bum-bum-bum-bum… Of the four explicitly Christmas-themed #1s so far, this is the first I’ve posted in December. And what an appropriate song for this sad, socially distant festive season: It’ll be lonely this Christmas, Without you to hold, It’ll be lonely this Christmas, Lonely and cold…

This time last year, Slade were giving us pure Xmas escapism. This year, though, Mud are wallowing in misery. There’s no other word: it’s a miserable song. Obviously, you expect a record called ‘Lonely This Christmas’ to be sad, bittersweet, maybe even a little maudlin. But not this bad. I really don’t see the appeal of listening to this over a glass of mulled wine. The only things I see, Are emptiness, And loneliness, And an unlit Christmas tree…

It is possible to write a good-but-sad Christmas song. ‘Last Christmas’ would be the classic example. Then there’s Elvis’s ‘Blue Christmas’, which admittedly is more sexy than sad. And Elvis is a relevant comparison here, as Mud’s lead singer Les Gray is serving his best impersonation of The King in the vocals (and the famous TOTP performance below). He goes full ‘Are You Lonesome Tonight?’ when we come to the spoken word section: Remember last year, When you and I were here…? Just why someone from Carshalton had to put on such a strong American accent is unclear, though I guess it would have taken away from the Elvis vibes.

I’ve heard it said that this song might have proven more popular than usual in 2020, and would maybe head higher up the streaming charts thanks to the pandemic. But it appears people are simply doubling down on Mariah Carey and Brenda Lee, and who can blame them? If your Christmas actually is miserable, and lonely, then you don’t need reminding through song. As for me, I’ve always included this in my festive playlists out of habit, because it was a huge seventies Christmas #1. I’m deleting it, though, right now. (Or at least replacing it with this pop-punk cover version.)

The big question here is: what happened to the band that recorded ‘Tiger Feet’? Where did they go? Can they come back? ‘Lonely This Christmas’ is everything Mud’s first, glorious chart-topper isn’t. If only they could have recorded a Christmas hit with the energy and enthusiasm of ‘Tiger Feet’… If only. By the end, when we get a ‘Jingle Bells’ coda, and a Merry Christmas darlin’, Wherever you are… I’m done. That’s plenty. After an autumn of disco, glam rock is really starting to show its age…

Still, Mud aren’t done. Not quite yet. I’ll hold off on the bio for now. Coming up next, in my final post before Christmas, we’ll visit a festive classic that really should have been a #1…

341. ‘Merry Xmas Everybody’, by Slade

OK everyone. On three. A-one, two… It’s CHRRRIIISSTTTMMAAAAASSSSSS!

Merry Xmas Everybody, by Slade (their 6th and final #1)

5 weeks, from 9th December 1973 – 13th January 1974

Yep, despite me sitting down to write this in real world October; our journey through the charts has us at Christmas 1973. Slade, the biggest band in the land have written an instant festive classic… Was there any way this wasn’t going to smash straight in at the top of the charts?

For the first time ever, two consecutive #1s have entered at the very top. (This won’t happen again until 1989!) All three of Slade’s chart-topping discs this year have debuted there. And they’ve saved their biggest one for last. The one that sold half a million copies in its first week on sale. Are you hanging up the stocking on your wall, It’s the time that every Santa has a ball…

To be honest, this song long since became muzak; I know all the words but never actually pay attention to them. Sitting down now and concentrating, you notice some clever touches. The ‘fairies’ sobering Santa up (pretty sure they’d be elves, but who am I to disagree with Slade?), the hints to the nativity and having room to spare inside. And of course, granny telling you that the old songs are the best but, presumably after a sherry or three, she’s up and rock ‘n’ rolling with the rest…

Musically, ‘Merry Xmas Everybody’ (the ‘s’ in Xmas should technically be back to front; but Microsoft Word cannot cope with Slade’s anarchic handwriting) sounds a bit subdued next to Slade’s more raucous earlier hits, ‘Cum on Feel the Noize’, ‘Take Me Back ‘Ome’ and the like. Maybe they dialled it back a bit, to ensure that it appealed to the widest possible audience; but it means it lacks a little something. It does mean, though, that we get some nice Beatlesy backing vocals and the brilliant What will your daddy do when he sees your momma kissing Santa Claus, a-ha…. bridge. Apparently Holder had written it in the sixties, long before Slade existed, which may explain the retro sound.

It must have sounded great when it first came out. Most Christmas standards up to then were either novelties, hymns or classics sung by Bing Crosby. But can anyone born in the UK, inside the last fifty years, actually remember the first time they heard this song? It’s just there. Each and every Christmas, on a loop. This, and the other big Christmas hit that was released in 1973, kicked off the idea of the Christmas #1 single, meaning that we perhaps have this to blame for Cliff’s Christmas efforts, Mr. Blobby, Bob the Builder, and all the horrible X-Factor winners’ singles… Dammit Slade, what did you do??

I could happily never hear this song again. It is Slade’s least enjoyable #1, and that’s not just because it’s a Christmas song. After this they turned away from commercial glam-pop and went heavier. The hits that immediately followed – ‘Everyday’, ‘The Bangin’ Man’ and ‘Far, Far Away’ – are for my money ten times better than this one. But hey ho.

Plus, the record I alluded to earlier, the other Christmas hit by a glam rock band from 1973, Wizzard’s ‘I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday’ is a better song, and one that I can still stomach when it starts coming on in the supermarket right about, hmmm, now. It only made #4. But. I love Slade, and don’t want to end my final post on them with a whimper. It’s lucky, then, that the band didn’t let this one end without one final moment of brilliance. It’s now pretty much enshrined in British law that Christmas hasn’t officially started until Noddy Holder has announced it at the top of his voice.

How much do Slade make from this record? About half a million pounds a year, it’s estimated. It was re-released in the early eighties, then again in the late nineties, and has made the charts every year since 2006 thanks to downloads and streaming. Last year, it reached #19. In a month or so it will start its latest ascent up the charts. It is a song that will probably outlive each and every one of you reading this. Slade’s legacy, for better or worse…

Enjoy (almost) all the #1s from 1973, and beyond, before we launch headfirst into ’74…

324. ‘Long Haired Lover From Liverpool’, by Little Jimmy Osmond

Hot on the heels of Chuck Berry’s smut-fest ‘My Ding-A-Ling’ comes another Christmas novelty, and 1972’s festive #1. Two novelty chart-toppers in a row! Aren’t we the lucky listeners…?

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Long Haired Lover From Liverpool, by Little Jimmy Osmond (his 1st and only #1)

5 weeks, from 17th December 1972 – 21st January 1973

Actually no. We are not. For everything that ‘My Ding-A-Ling’ got right, ‘Long Haired Lover From Liverpool’ gets wrong… It’s not funny, it’s not subversive, it’s not got a bawdy bone in its body. It’s a nine-year-old boy singing a music hall ditty, and it is intensely, painfully, terrifyingly catchy.

I first listened to it a few days ago, after finishing my previous post, and it has been lodged in my brain ever since. I’ll… Be… Your… Long-haired lover from Liverpool, And I’ll do anything you say… Was Little Jimmy Osmond from Liverpool? No, obviously not. They were Mormons from Ogden, Utah. Had he ever been to Liverpool? Doubtful. But he’ll say he is, and that he has, for his sunshine daisy from LA…

He’ll also be her leprechaun sitting on a toadstool, her clown, her puppet, her April Fool… Anything she asks, as long as she’s his sunshine daisy from LA… You have to wonder if Little Jimmy had any idea what the hell he was singing. But he does it like a pro, like the youngest son from a family steeped in showbiz. Before I’d even seen any pictures of him, I could picture his cheeky grin and chubby cheeks. His voice is ear-piercingly high, especially on the title line, but then I suppose nine-year-old’s voices usually are.

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It’s strange. On the one hand I am aware that this is a genuinely heinous piece of music. Meanwhile the other hand is tapping along happily. But lo! Suddenly, just past the two-minute mark, the song fades. Finished. I like to think that the sound engineer just couldn’t take it anymore and slid the volume dial down, while Jimmy and his band kept going for another three minutes, unaware…

‘Long Haired Lover From Liverpool’ had been written and recorded a few years earlier, by a Christopher Kingsley, and played on local radio. That’s where Mother Osmond heard the song and thought it would be perfect for her Jimmy. And it was – Osmond mania was sweeping the world in late ‘72. Little Jimmy was, apparently, particularly huge in Japan. We’ve had one Osmond at the top of the charts already this year, and I have to admit that I’d choose ‘Long Haired Lover From Liverpool’ over Donny’s ‘Puppy Love’ any day of the week.

At nine years and eight months old Jimmy Osmond was – and still is – the youngest artist to be credited with a UK #1 single. (Though younger children have featured on #1s, without getting a credit… more on that anon.)

And that’s that for 1972. What a strange year for chart-toppers! Some have been era-defining, others have been heart-breaking, while some have been hilarious. And a few have just been really, really bad. Roll on 1973!

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!

294. ‘I Hear You Knocking’, by Dave Edmunds

And so we arrive at a song I know very well – a song I’ve loved for a long time. It’s one of my earliest memories of popular music, this song – so early that I have no idea how it got to be there, buried in my consciousness.

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I Hear You Knocking, by Dave Edmunds (his 1st and only #1)

6 weeks, from 22nd November 1970 – 3rd January 1971

I love the choppy guitar, and the fried vocals. The trippy effects in the background, too, that sound like weird sea-creatures calling to one another across the deep. And I love the fact that at heart it’s just a straight-up, chugging, no frills rock ‘n’ roll number. You went away and left me, Long time ago, And now you’re knockin’, On my door…

It’s a sassy song – the singer telling his ex to get the hell out with their sweet words. I hear you knockin’, But you can’t come in… Go back where you been! She left him, though he begged her not to, and Edmunds still isn’t over it. Though he later reveals that this all happened in ’52, when he told her that I would never go with you… Which is both contradictory to what he sang two verses earlier, and a hell of a long time to hold a grudge…

Who cares. Careless lyrics aside, this is a rocking record. Our second whiff of glam at the top of the charts – after ‘Spirit in the Sky’ – and a bit of a throwback. (Over the chorus, Edmunds starts shouting out the names of some fifties rock ‘n’ roll stars – Chuck Berry! Fats Domino! – to leave us in no doubt about to whom this song owes a debt.) Something that sounds like a steam train gets added to the insistent rhythm, and then we get the piece de resistance of the whole record: the single, clanging note from a honky-tonk piano. Dung! Next verse!

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Despite ‘I Hear You Knocking’ sounding like it just crawled out of a Louisiana swamp, Dave Edmunds is actually Welsh. He had had one UK Top 10 with his blues band Love Sculpture, and this was his first, and by far his biggest, solo hit. It’s a staple of 70s Compilations, which is probably where first I heard it as a kid. ‘I Hear You Knocking’ was first recorded in the mid-fifties, by Smiley Lewis (Edmunds also shouts his name out during the solo) and then Fats Domino. Edmunds himself just recently retired from touring in his mid-seventies.

I do love this song, but am struggling to write much more about it. Really though – it’s not the sort of song that needs much writing about. If this record were a person, it’d be a doer, not a thinker. It gets you tapping your feet, and shaking your shoulders, rather than working your brain. I’d simply suggest that you click on the link below and get doing the same…

Actually, one thing that’s worth noting here is how long this, and so many other records, have spent at the top this year. ‘I Hear You Knocking’ got six, as did Elvis and Freda Payne. Mungo Jerry got seven, Edison Lighthouse five. If you look a little further, to the tail end of 1969, Rolf Harris also got six, while The Archies spent eight weeks up there! Not sure what this signifies, other than the fact that we are in the company of some monster hits at the moment – and that they’re going to keep on coming (and staying).

Listen to every number one so far on my Spotify playlist.

280. ‘Two Little Boys’, by Rolf Harris

And so the 1960s, the decade that’s given us so much fine, fine pop music, so much invention, so much sonic expansion, comes to an end. With Rolf effing Harris.

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Two Little Boys, by Rolf Harris (his 1st and only #1)

6 weeks, from 14th December 1969 – 25th January 1970

Though in some ways, having a convicted sex-offender at #1 is actually a very appropriate introduction to the 1970s… Yes, let’s get this out the way at the start. Rolf Harris is currently serving a lengthy jail sentence for indecently assaulting several underage girls. (Of course, he’s not the last sex-offender that we’ll meet on our journey through the charts.) I won’t make light of it, because it’s not something to make light of.

To the song, then. Is it a novelty? Is it a ballad? Is it traditional pop? Music hall? All of these things? It’s a tale, as the title suggests, of two little boys. We open on a summer’s day, a back garden somewhere in suburban Australia. (Harris sounds extremely Australian here, especially given that he doesn’t really sing the song as much as he talks us through it.) Two little boys had two little toys, Each had a wooden horse… One boy, Jack, breaks his toy, and starts crying, upon which his little buddy, Joe, offers him a go of his own horse. When we grow up we’ll both be soldiers, And our horses will not be toys… If this were a movie we’d be rolling our eyes at some pretty heavy-handed signposting…

Fast-forward many years. The boys are now soldiers, at war. Cannon roared loud, And in the mad crowd, Wounded and dying lay… One of the little boys. But what’s that? From the fray dashes a horse. Yep, little boy number two… Did you think I would leave you dying, When there’s room on my horse for two…? The roles are reversed: Joe is now in peril, and Jack comes to his rescue.

It’s utter sentimental crap, perfect for the grannies at Christmas. But at the same time, goddamit, it tugs at something. It hits you right in the feels, for want of a better expression, when the marching drums and trumpets fall away, and Harris near-whispers: Can you feel Joe, I’m all a tremble… Perhaps it’s the battle’s noise? But I think it’s because I remember, When we were two little boys… Then we end with what sounds like ‘The Last Post’. It’s a celebration of male friendship, of non-romantic love, even if it does play to the very outdated idea that men can only express affection to one another on the battle, or sports, field.

‘Two Little Boys’ was written many years before, way way back in 1902. The lyrics about ranks so blue make me think it’s set in the US Civil War. Which automatically puts it high up the table of the ‘oldest’ chart-toppers. You’ve got ‘It’s All in the Game’, originally from the 1910s, ‘Lily the Pink’ from the 1870s, ‘Cumberland Gap’ from the mid-eighteen hundreds, and ‘I See the Moon’, parts of which date from the 1780s.

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It’s a song that brings about conflicting feelings. Cheesy; but somehow touching. Familiar, but also not a song you can play in public these days… In fact, it’s odd to look back at Rolf Harris’s career from a 2020 vantage point. Growing up in the nineties he was still a constant figure on TV – he sketched, he sang, he cracked jokes, he did his weird wobble board and played his didgeridoo. He was as Australian as Lamingtons (his biggest hit in the UK prior to his sole chart-topper was the Top Ten ‘Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport.’) And then he was disgraced and, to be honest, erased from history…

I was half-expecting to not find ‘Two Little Boys’ on Spotify, remembering the furore that R Kelly’s music caused when they reinstated it, as if he was the first pop star with a seedy past. But it’s there; and that’s only right. Harris is a convicted child molester, but his music was, and in some circles probably still is, popular. If people feel uncomfortable listening to it – completely understandable – they can choose not to. But the decision not to listen should be ours, not Spotify’s or HMV’s. That’s my tuppence-worth, anyway…

But enough of that, we should be focusing on the positives! We’re about to jump into the 1970s, the decade of glam, of disco, of punk and new-wave. I’m excited. You should be excited. Hey! Ho! Let’s go!

Listen to every number one from the 1960s (and the 1950s) here!

262. ‘Lily the Pink’, by The Scaffold

The final number one single of 1968! Over the course of the twenty-one records that have topped the charts this year, we’ve met a wide range of characters: Bonnie & Clyde, Quinn the Eskimo, Cinderella Rockefella, Lady Madonna… Now please welcome, last but by no means least, Lily the Pink!

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Lily the Pink, by The Scaffold (their 1st and only #1)

3 weeks, from 11th December 1968 – 1st January 1969 / 1 week, from 8th – 15th January 1969 (4 weeks total)

We’ll drink a drink a drink, To Lily the Pink, The saviour of, The human race… The pace is frenetic, the song charges along on an oompah-band beat. For she invented, Medicinal compound, Most efficacious, In every case… And it’s not just Lily the Pink that we meet either, but the cast of poor souls that her medicinal compound has helped.

There’s Mr Frears, with his sticky-out ears… The notably bony Brother Tony… Old Ebeneezer, who thought he was Julius Caesar… Jennifer Eccles, with her terrible freckles… You get the idea. It’s a novelty song. Perfect for a Christmas party, last-orders down the pub sing-along when everybody’s a bit pissed. Pure music-hall.

It reminds me of two, very different songs. First, there’s ‘Oom-pah-pah’, from the musical ‘Oliver!’ Another rowdy bar-room tune, in which the drinkers raise their glasses to the life-giving properties of the mythical ‘oom-pah-pah’. It’s a classic. Secondly, this also reminds me, with its boing-boing rhythm, of another (in)famous Christmas #1… ‘Mr Blobby’. (Which very much isn’t a classic.)

‘Lily the Pink’ falls somewhere in between these two songs. It’s fun, for a verse or two, and then it gets pretty old pretty quick. There’s an unfortunate stuttering verse – Johnny Hammer, Had a terrible s-s-s-s-stammer… – and it’s very hammy by the end, when the medicinal compound proves too strong even for Lily the Pink, and she snuffs it. It’s definitely a song that would improve the more you drink…

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Speaking of which, it is based on a much older, American drinking song – ‘The Ballad of Lydia Pinkham’ – which in turn was inspired by an actual drug – Lydia E. Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound, from the 1870s, which relieved menstrual cramps. The fact that it was 40 proof alcohol meant that plenty of people not suffering from period-pains drank it anyway… And apparently the original verses were saucier even than The Scaffold’s end-of-the-pier version.

Just as interesting as the song’s origins are the musicians involved in its recording. The Scaffold were a comedy trio from Liverpool – one of whom was Peter McCartney (brother of Paul.) Musicians they were not, and so to help them on ‘Lily the Pink’ you can hear Graham Nash of The Hollies (the line about ‘Jennifer Eccles’ is a reference to a Hollies’ hit), Tim Rice and an unknown singer by the name of Reginald Dwight, who may or may not have gone on to bigger things under a different name.

What’s that? You thought that 1968 was going to finish off with some bland, run-of-the-mill pop song? Well you haven’t been paying attention, have you? This year has brought us the most eclectic bunch of #1s so far. We’ve veered from silly novelties, to bizarro fantasy epics, from spaghetti western soundtracks to the birth of shock-rock. All with healthy doses of jazz, crooning, rock ‘n’ roll, and Cliff, in between. Next up, we tick on over into the final year of the swinging sixties, and hope that it can be half as interesting as the year just gone…

Enjoy all the number ones from 1968, and earlier, here: