451. ‘Coward of the County’, by Kenny Rogers

Oh well. The brave new world of the eighties – the world of The Pretenders and The Specials – lasts for precisely two chart-toppers. Because, as they so often do, a Country and Western song has come along to remind us not to get too carried away…

Coward of the County, by Kenny Rogers (his 2nd of two #1s)

2 weeks, 10th – 24th February 1980

It’s another homespun tale, with the exact same jaunty, acoustic plod as Lucille, Kenny Rogers’ first #1 from three years earlier. It’s the tale of a – presumably – fictional nephew, the eponymous ‘Coward of the County’. His momma named him Tommy, The folks all called him yellow…

Why is he such a ‘coward’? Well, it’s all down to a promise to his dying father, who had made Tommy swear he’d always run from trouble, always turn the other cheek. I hope you’re old enough to understand, Son, you don’t have to fight to be a man… Which was all fine, until the day Gatlin boys came to have their way with his wife, Becky.

Yes, this is a #1 single that centres around a gang rape. In some ways this is one of the most shocking chart-toppers, ever. Except, the way Rogers delivers the line – and there was three of them… – is almost funny. Not intentionally, you’d hope, but still… Yep, she’s been raped. Key change!

Long story short: Tommy decides that there are limitations to his promise, goes to the local saloon, and beats the shit out of the Gatlin boys. Hurray! And as in ‘Lucille’ there’s a plot twist. Papa I sure hope you understand, Sometimes you gotta fight when you’re a man… There’s something noble about that, I guess… But there’s so much wrong with this song: the vigilantism, the voiceless Becky’s rape as a plot device, the idea that men must fight or they are sissies… All wrapped up in a jaunty little tune. I’m not against dealing with tough topics in pop singles – Rogers did it excellently in his breakthrough hit ‘Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town’ – but it doesn’t work here.

I’m shocked by my reaction to this song, actually. I thought I liked it… But the more I listen, the more I’m put off. The obvious comparison is to Johnny Cash’s ‘Boy Named Sue’ – both country, both about absent fathers controlling their sons’ destinies – but Cash plays his hit for laughs. The idea of a father naming his son ‘Sue’ so that he’ll have to fight is genuinely funny, and plays with the masculine conventions of country music, whereas ‘Coward of the County’ is self-righteous and predictable.

Kenny Rogers may not be appearing on this blog again, but his hit-making career was far from over. He’d have one further Top 10 in the UK, the karaoke classic ‘Islands in the Stream’ alongside Dolly Parton. He died last year, aged eighty-one. Meanwhile, ‘Coward of the County’ was turned into a TV movie and was covered – and this is 100% true, just check out this link – by Alvin & The Chipmunks. There was also controversy when it turned out that the writer, Roger Bowling, may have named the song’s villains after the band The Gatlin Brothers, against whom he held a grudge… Actually, that’d make a really good storyline for a country song. Better than this one, anyway…

446. ‘When You’re In Love With a Beautiful Woman’, by Dr. Hook

The pre-penultimate #1 of the decade, then. And what’s this…? More country and western?

When You’re In Love With a Beautiful Woman, by Dr. Hook (their 1st and only #1)

3 weeks, from 11th November – 2nd December 1979

At least this isn’t the abrasive, twanging, Lord-have-mercy country style brought to us by Lena Martell. It’s a much softer, disco-edged kind of country. A sort of pop-Eagles. Completely against the grain of what’s topped the charts for much of 1979, but perfectly pleasant.

Let’s get one thing out of the way first: When you’re in love with a beautiful woman, It’s hard… (You know it gets so hard…) Well, quite. Stop sniggering at the back, there! Innuendo aside, it’s an interesting concept for a song, and very ‘country’ in the way a good thing – being in love with a beautiful woman – is gleaned for negatives.

You can’t trust your friends around her, you see. You watch her eyes. You wonder who that was hanging up when you answered the phone… Everybody wants her, Everybody loves her, Everybody wants to take your baby home… I like the backing vocalists – You better watch your friends, Watch your friends… – that feel as if they’re whispering devils on the singer’s shoulder.

Actually, though, if you stop and think about it, it’s a little bit sinister. Your lover’s unfaithful, your friends are backstabbers, the world is out to burst your loved-up bubble… Maybe it’s just an ego problem… sing Dr Hook. Sounds like it, yup. It’s a bit of a study in fragile masculinity, really. What’s the solution? Only go for ugly girls…? Be less of a suspicious twat…?

However, it’s easy to ignore the creepy undertones, and to get swept away by this light, fun, fairly inconsequential chart-topper. Dr Hook had been around since the start of the decade, popping up in the charts at regular intervals, before achieving their one and only chart-topper. The band name came from the fact that singer Ray Sawyer wore an eye-patch following a car crash. (Hook – Captain Hook – pirates – eye-patches… get it?)

This was almost their chart swan song – they would have a couple more Top 10s before splitting up in the mid-eighties. And this is almost our seventies swan song: just two more chart-toppers before the decade is out…!

445. ‘One Day at a Time’, by Lena Martell

Oh, OK… Well, this is perfect. After all that blather in my last post about a new-wave, technicolour era, as we prepared to dive head first into the eighties… This comes along.

One Day at a Time, by Lena Martell (her 1st and only #1)

3 weeks, from 21st October – 11th November 1979

I had forgotten, you see, that the British nation has a weird obsession with country and western music. Had forgotten that in amongst the explosion of new sounds topping the charts during the last year or so, that actually the most consistent sound of the seventies has not been glam, or disco, punk or synth-pop… It’s been C & W. From the decade’s 2nd #1 ‘Wand’rin’ Star’, through Dawn, Tammy Wynette, J.J. Barrie (shudder) and Kenny Rogers… to this.

One day at a time, Sweet Jesus…! We’ve had sentimental country, country with lonesome men and stoic women, folks returnin’ from war, from jail… But until now, we had been spared this. Christian Country. Show me the stairway, I have to climb, Lord for my sake, Teach me to take, One day at a time… Lena is struggling in this modern world, so she looks above for guidance.

One thing I knew about Lena Martell is that she and I are compatriots. Yep, the steady stream of country hits in the UK was, for some reason, largely fuelled by us Scots. Something about their hard-drinkin’, rough-livin’ ways appeals to us… (no comment) Martell is the second Glaswegian to have a country #1, after Billy Connolly. And she does, to be fair to her, put on a good southern twang. But while Connolly’s ‘D.I.V.O.R.C.E.’ was a funny piss-take, ‘One Day at a Time’ is painfully earnest. Truth is, I am a sucker for this kind of country schmaltz. Musically, this is fine. If she were singing about her good for nuthin’, cheatin’ man, I’d be all in. Unfortunately, this record is lyrically rancid.

In the final verse, she goes full ‘Daily Mail’ comments-board. Oh Lord, she moans, what’s the world coming to? Well, Jesus you know, if you’re looking below, It’s worse now than then… Cheatin’ and stealin’, Violence and crime… I’m going to be careful here, as I don’t want to offend anyone’s beliefs… But I’m pretty sure even the good Lord above would have been offended by this crap.

‘One Day at a Time’ was originally released by a Marilyn Sellars in 1974, and has been recorded over 200 times… Mostly by country singers I’ve never heard of, though I see both Tennessee Ernie Ford and Brotherhood of Man have had a crack. Meanwhile, this disc gave Lena Martell her one and only chart hit. She did, though, have a long-running show on the BBC, sang with Frank Sinatra on her US tours, and was releasing country and religious albums well into the 2000s, until she retired following heart surgery.

Fair play to her, then, for having a career that many can only dream of. As for her chart-topping, one-hit-wonder moment in the sun, though… I think I can sum it up in two words: Sweet Jesus!

406. ‘Lucille’, by Kenny Rogers

So, while The Sex Pistols perhaps should have kicked Rod Stewart off the top, in the end he was replaced by another crazy-haired, middle-finger sticking punk rocker… Only kidding, he was replaced by Kenny Rogers.

Lucille, by Kenny Rogers (his 1st of two #1s)

1 week, from 12th – 19th June 1977

The two main sounds of the mid to early-late seventies, since glam died, have undeniably been disco and slushy soft-rock. But coming up behind, in the bronze medal position, surprisingly, is country and western. We’ve had Tammy Wynette, Billy Connolly as Tammy, J. J. Barrie, Pussycat… and now a proper legend of the genre.

Country music is often sad; and yet often ridiculous. It is a melodramatic genre. And the opening line of this record is up there with some of the very best. In a bar in Toledo, Across from the depot, On a bar stool she took off her ring… Talk about setting a scene! A tawdry tale is told, as the singer approaches this beautiful, sad woman.

She’s been living on dreams, she’s finally had enough, she needs more out of life… Kenny’s about to make his move, when in through the barroom doors strides Lucille’s ex. The big hands were calloused, He looked like a mountain, For a minute I thought I was dead… As silly as all this is, when Kenny Rogers is on form he tells a story like no other.

You picked a fine time to leave me, Lucille… The story spins on its head. Four hungry children and a crop in the fields… We assumed she was the victim, finally breaking away from hardship and abuse… But is she? Kenny takes her to a hotel, but when the time comes to do the deed, all he can hear is her estranged husband’s voice… This time your hurtin’ won’t heal…

What this song really needs is a third and final verse. Who’s really to blame? Who’s telling the truth? Does she go back to her family farm? Does Kenny get his leg over? We need closure! Instead we get the chorus and a slow, slow fade. He may have set an excellent scene; but Rogers needs practice in wrapping up a story. Thankfully, come his next #1 single – yes, he has more than one – he will have mastered the art of storytelling, and produced a classic.

If it weren’t for the pretty gritty subject matter, I’d describe this as a lullaby. The guitar sways and soothes, while the bass keeps time like a metronome. Many Kenny Rogers hits I can think of do this, hide a tough subject matter behind a soothing rhythm: ‘Ruby’, ‘The Gambler’, his aforementioned 2nd chart-topper… ‘Lucille’ was his first big smash since breaking with his band The First Edition, and it set him off on an extended run of hits.

I was going to ask why on earth this record made #1, for a near forty-year-old country singer. But perhaps we’re past that. ‘Lucille’ made #1 simply because country and western music was a very popular genre at the time. It’s not an ever-present, but this is far from the last time we’ll be hearing it…

395. ‘Mississippi’, by Pussycat

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’…

390. ‘The Combine Harvester (Brand New Key)’, by The Wurzels

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:

389. ‘No Charge’, by J. J. Barrie

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!)

370. ‘Stand by Your Man’, by Tammy Wynette

Sometimes it’s hard, To be… A woman… Let me ask you: Is there a better opening line out there?

Stand by Your Man, by Tammy Wynette (her 1st and only #1)

3 weeks, from 11th May – 1st June 1975

Then there’s the twang and the tremble in Tammy Wynette’s voice as she gives her piece of marital advice… Giving all your love, To just, One man… ‘World-weary’ doesn’t even begin to describe it. This is some proper, old-school, Nashville Country & Western, where life is tough and men just don’t appreciate you.

You’ll have bad times, And he’ll have good times… Oh Tammy, honey… Doing things that you don’t understand… Her husband stays out late, wasting his time in gambling and carousing and other manly pursuits, while Tammy pines at home. I love the clanging, reverbing guitars as the chorus clicks into gear: Stand by your man! Give him two arms to cling to… And somethin’ warm to come to… When nights are cold and lonely…

It’s a ridiculous sentiment, really, especially to 2021 ears. ‘Stand by Your Man’ would have sounded old-fashioned in 1975, or even in 1968 when it was recorded (feminist movements of the time certainly thought so.) If you love him, You’ll forgive him… No, Tammy! If your good-for-nothing husband’s staying out all night, drinking and fornicating, you change the locks and come at him with a rolling-pin! And if that doesn’t work, you divorce him. (Of course, Wynette’s other signature hit is ‘D-I-V-O-R-C-E’, although in that song she is the one being divorced…)

But then, if you think about it, to most women in the sixties, who lived in the conservative parts of America where country music is the defining sound, divorce wouldn’t have been an option. It would have meant disgrace, scorn and opprobrium. So this record would have resonated with many a put-upon wife, left with little option other than standing by her man. Wynette always argued that stand by your man wasn’t the most important line in the song. She pointed people’s attention to: ‘cause after all, he’s just a man… (Ouch!)

Why was this record hitting #1 now, in the spring of 1975? It had featured in a Jack Nicholson film a few years before, but I can’t find any other reason. Then again, I could ask that question about every C&W hit. They come along, every so often, standing out like a sore thumb. Kind of like reggae, it’s a genre that pops up every now and again, without changing very much, and the strings and echoey backing guitars are the same ones we heard in the fifties, on monster country hits like ‘Rose Marie’.

Tammy Wynette was one of the genre’s biggest stars – the ‘First Lady of Country’, no less – with seventeen #1s on the Billboard Country charts. This, being one of only three chart appearances here, doesn’t tell her full story at all. (Though a parody of one of her other hits will be featuring in this countdown very soon…) She died in 1998, but not before making one of the greatest music comebacks of all time, with the KLF, and the ancients of Mu Mu on ‘Justified and Ancient’ in the early ‘90s… Tammy, stand by the JAM…

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.

305. ‘Maggie May’ / ‘Reason to Believe’, by Rod Stewart

And so we welcome to the stage a true rock icon, a man who sells albums and fills stadiums to this day. Sir Rod Stewart. (I’m assuming he’s a ‘Sir’. Sort it out, Queenie, if he isn’t.)

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Maggie May / Reason to Believe, by Rod Stewart (his 1st of six #1s)

5 weeks, from 3rd October – 7th November 1971

This was his very first solo single release to make the charts. Straight to the top with a bullet, with what is his most famous song? I don’t think I’ve ever heard the ‘single’ version of ‘Maggie May’, which is a full two minutes shorter than the extended version I grew up with. It’s the same intro, albeit condensed, a confident acoustic riff, then two emphatic drumbeats announcing that the story is ready to begin. Wake up Maggie, I think I got something to say to you…

Young Rod has been seduced by an older woman, spent a summer with her, and is now starting to wake up to the harsh realities of their relationship. It’s late September and I really should be back at school… ‘Maggie May’ is famously based on Stewart’s encounter with a real woman, at a Jazz festival when he was sixteen. Getting away from the slightly predatory story – imagine if the genders were reversed – the lyrics capture perfectly the voice of a callous teen, coupled with some corny rhymes: I laughed at all your jokes, My love you didn’t need to coax… And then the classic: The morning sun when it’s in your face really shows your age… Harsh!

He loves her, but wishes he’d never seen her face. We’ve all been there. Young Rod sounds like a bit of a tearaway – his options post-Maggie are either becoming a roadie or making a living out of playing pool… I’m sure he’ll be fine, and get over the heartbreak. Anyway, the whole song is basically him rehearsing what he’s going to say to Maggie. He hasn’t broke it off just yet! It hinges on the opening and closing lines: I think I’ve got something to say to you… and I’ll get on back home, One of these days…

Unfortunately, the single version cuts the best verse, the one with the: You turned into a lover and mother what a lover you wore me out! line. Maybe that would have been too ripe for daytime radio. Then comes the solo, and the mandolin outro, one of the Celtic-sounding elements that often pop up in Rod Stewart’s music. It’s an undeniable classic, one that – cliched but true – still sounds fresh today. One that no amount of terrible pub karaoke versions can ruin. And while the woman may have been real, her name wasn’t ‘Maggie May’ – she was a famous Liverpudlian prostitute. I’m sure the actual ‘Maggie’ was delighted by the comparison…

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It’s been a long old while since we had a double-‘A’ hit the top of the charts – not since Louis Armstrong in 1968. On the flip we have Rod’s cover of ‘Reason to Believe’, a song I’m certain I’ve never heard before. It opens with a lonesome piano, before the vocals come in. Both these songs are very much focused on Stewart’s voice. Which is fair enough, as he does have one of the best.

If I listen, Long enough, To you… I’d find a way, To believe, That it’s all true… In ‘Maggie May’, he was trying to convince himself to leave someone. In this song, he’s trying to talk himself into staying, despite knowing that his lover lied: straight faced, while I cried… He needs a reason to believe in her. The two songs work well together, both in terms of the sound and the lyrical theme.

A fiddle gives this record the country feel that the mandolin gave ‘Maggie May’. Then midway through, we’re left with just the voice. Someone like you, Makes it hard to live, Without, Somebody else… It’s a nice song, that slowly grows on the listener; but it’s no ‘Maggie May’. Technically, ‘Reason to Believe’ was the song first pushed to radio when the disc was released, but the song on the other side quickly won through. Maybe it was because The Carpenters had released a version of the song the year before – a classic Carpentersy-country version – while the folky original had been recorded in 1965, by Tim Hardin, that the label thought ‘Reason…’ might have caught people’s attention quicker.

For, while this was Rod Stewart’s first charting single, it wasn’t his first attempt at a solo career. He’d been releasing singles since 1964, and had spent the sixties busking, playing session gigs and jumping between bands. Then came The Jeff Beck Group, in which he met Ronnie Wood, and then The Faces (basically The Small Faces minus lead singer Steve Marriott), with whom he was having hits alongside his solo work in the early seventies. After this huge five-week #1 smash there will be no looking back for Rod – he’ll go on to become one of the decades’ biggest stars, on either side of the Atlantic, and we’ll be meeting him plenty more times in the months to come.