421. ‘Matchstalk Men and Matchstalk Cats and Dogs’, by Brian & Michael

Kicking off the next thirty #1s with a bit of a curio… It opens with a brass band and the sound of children playing. I’m getting a strong ‘Hovis’ ad vibe. But when the actual song starts… Where to begin?

Matchstalk Men and Matchstalk Cats and Dogs, by Brian & Michael (their 1st and only #1)

3 weeks, from 2nd – 23rd April 1978

Perhaps with a bit of context. The ‘matchstalk’ men, cats and dogs refers to the paintings of LS Lowry, a Manchester artist who had passed away a year or so previously. He painted industrial scenes of the north of England – factories, chimneys and smog – but also more intimate pictures of people queueing for fish and chip and going to football matches. All done in a very recognisable – some critics might have said ‘simplistic’ – style…

And he painted matchstalk men and matchstalk cats and dogs… He painted kids on the corner of the street that were sparking clogs… (I have no idea what ‘sparking clogs’ involves – I guess it’s a Manc thing.) Now here’s the rub. This song starts off quite nicely. The first verse paints a picture (pardon the pun) of a northern childhood, in which the singers, Brian and Michael (who sound right Mancunian), wonder if Lowry painted them as kids, on the back of cardboard boxes, before he became famous. It builds up a bit of goodwill in me…

Which it wastes almost immediately. The brass band comes back, you see, and a children’s choir comes in. Not only that, the lyrics go a bit naff. Well, naffer. They tell the tale of Lowry’s trips to London, in which bigwigs patronise him by asking him to put on his flat cap. Worse follows… Now Lowrys hang on upon the wall, Besides the greatest of them all, Even the Mona Lisa takes a bow… When he dies, the ‘Good Lord’ mops Lowry’s brow, as he waits outside them Pearly Gates… To paint his matchstalk cats and dogs…

Putting aside the inaccuracies – I don’t think there are any Lowrys in the Louvre – it’s all a bit… provincial. A bit chippy. Only northern folk got our Lowry. Them soft southerners didn’t, never mind the foreigners… Take the first comment on the highest-viewed YouTube video of the song (it’s missing from Spotify – our first unstreamable #1 for a while). ‘Playing outside in the streets’, the commenter writes, ‘in the late 70s with no fears and no social media…’

Those were the days. The winter of discontent, electric meters, Jimmy Saville on Top of the Pops, Bisto with your tea… I’m more on the side of the 2nd commenter, who writes: ‘This has got to be the biggest load of shit ever produced’. OK, maybe I wouldn’t go that far (there’ll always be ‘No Charge’) but it’s a song that gets worse as it goes on. The lyrics grow more self-righteous, the kids choir more annoying in their ally-ally-ohs, and then to top it all off there’s a key change…

It’s been a while since we’ve had a pure, unexplainable novelty at the top. At least it’s better than the easy-listening sludge we struggled through recently. Or is it…? Brian and Michael were a duo from Manchester, and had been in the music biz since the sixties. My favourite thing by far about this whole record is the fact that Brian doesn’t even appear on it. He’d been replaced by a chap called Kevin a couple of weeks after the single had been released, and Kevin had to go along with the name…

They are still active, Brian/Kevin and Michael, but remain one-hit wonders. However, the choir, of St. Winifred’s School in Stockport, will be back to score a Christmas #1 as lead artists in a couple of years. Take this as an advanced warning… Start preparing yourselves. On a completely unrelated note, this is the 5th #1 of 1978, and already the 3rd to reference famous works of art. We’ve had an opera (‘Figaro’), literature (‘Wuthering Heights’), and now paintings.

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.

357. ‘Annie’s Song’, by John Denver

Finally, we get a respite from all the disco, by lurching as far away from the dance hall as possible.

Annie’s Song, by John Denver (his 1st and only #1)

1 week, from 6th – 13th October 1974

I didn’t think I knew this one… Until after ten seconds, when the vocals begin: You fill up my senses, Like a night in a forest… Of course I know this. It’s an easy listening classic. Like the mountains in spring time, Like a walk in the rain… A girl – Annie, we might presume – stimulates John Denver in ways that normally only nature does. You fill up my senses, Come fill me again…

I have to admit, I remain unconvinced by that line. It just sounds… odd. (Yes, I am well aware that my mind is in the gutter.) And I have to admit, I remain unconvinced by this song. By this entire genre of acoustic, singer-songwriter balladry on the whole. It is just not my cup of tea. Whenever one of these #1s comes along, as they will do from time to time, I will endeavour to put my prejudices aside and judge fairly.

It might not be disco, but it is still a very American sounding record. The Billboard charts of the mid-seventies were choc-a-bloc with soft, countryish rock like this. For whatever reason, ‘Annie’s Song’ was one of the few that managed to break through to the top across the Atlantic. (I had my suspicions that this was a posthumous chart-topper, which would maybe have explained why it made it to the top, because I knew that John Denver died in a plane crash. Except that was in 1997…)

As the song progresses, the production becomes more and more overblown. In come strings, and mandolins, and melodic hums from the backing vocalists. The lyrics also become a little OTT: Let me drown in your laughter, Let me die in your arms… Maybe I’m giving myself away as completely unromantic, but he is laying it on a little bit thick.

‘Annie’ was Denver’s wife at the time, and he was inspired to write the song while on a ski-lift in Aspen, Colorado. He claimed he skied back down the mountain and wrote it in an hour. Colorado was the inspiration for much of his music – he used the capital as his stage name, and was named the state’s poet laureate. When he did indeed die in a plane crash, his ashes were scattered across the Rocky Mountains.

What amazes me is that this was John Denver’s one and only hit record in the UK. He was a huge chart star in the States – four number ones to his name – but a bona-fide one-hit wonder in Britain! His most famous songs that aren’t ‘Annie’s Song’ – ‘Take Me Home, Country Roads’ and ‘Leaving on a Jet Plane’ – were hits, though, for Olivia Newton-John and Peter, Paul and Mary. A chart quirk, then; and probably the most prolific one-hit wonder in UK chart history!

318. ‘You Wear It Well’, by Rod Stewart

In which Rod Stewart scores his second number one single, by releasing a song that sounds suspiciously like his first. I mean, ‘Maggie May’ had been such a huge hit, his now-signature song, that you can’t blame him for trying to re-bottle lightning.

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You Wear It Well, by Rod Stewart (his 2nd of six #1s)

1 week, from 27th August – 3rd September 1972

Not that it’s a rip-off (can you even rip-off your own song?), but it’s similar enough to sound like an off-cut from the same recording session. The intro meanders, as it did in ‘Maggie May’, before two drumbeats – dun dun – signify that we’re ready for the song proper to get underway.

I had nothing to do, On this hot afternoon, But to settle down and write you a line… Rod’s reminiscing about a woman he once loved. Who knows, maybe it’s Maggie…? He’s been meaning to call her, but thinks a handwritten letter would tug the old heartstrings a bit more effectively. You wear it well, A little old fashioned but that’s alright…

He reminisces about basement parties, her radical views, a birthday gown he bought her in town… Then he lays on the charm: Madame Onassis got nothing on you… It’s another wordy ballad, a little more electric than acoustic this time, while the fiddle from ‘Reason to Believe’ – the flip-side of his first #1 – makes another appearance to add some homespun charm. To be honest, I’m struggling to get into ‘You Wear It Well’. It’s a bit plodding, and the words sometimes get lost in the mix.

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When you look the lyrics up, though, you see that there are some nice touches. The fact that he didn’t call because he’s in Minnesota and, y’know, that’d be a bit pricey, and the line: My coffee’s gone cold and I’m getting told, That I gotta go back to work… While at the end Rod hopes that she’s still at the same address. It’s not a record without charm; you just have to give it a few listens and dig a little deeper to find it.

But, you’d have to admit that if he had been trying to recapture the magic of his debut chart-topper then he’s not quite managed it. It’s strange to think that of all Rod Stewart’s big seventies hits which didn’t make the top of the charts – ‘You’re In My Heart’, ‘Tonight’s the Night’, ‘Hot Legs’ – ‘You Wear It Well’ did.

A short post, then. A nice enough song, and a nice enough addition to 1972’s parade of chart-toppers. It seems that to hit #1 in the summer of ’72 your record either had to be glammed up to the eyeballs, soppy teenybopper fluff, or an acoustic ballad. Let’s spin the tombola and see what pops up next…!

Follow my #1s playlist on Spotify:

314. ‘Vincent’, by Don McLean

From the glorious, life-affirming swagger of ‘Metal Guru’… to one of the saddest #1 singles ever recorded.

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Vincent, by Don McLean (his 1st of two #1s)

2 weeks, from 11th – 25th June 1972

The ‘Vincent’ in question is the Dutch artist Vincent Van Gogh, who lived and painted in the late 19th century, to little recognition and with failing mental health until severe poverty and depression led to him shooting himself. Not the cheeriest of topics to start with, even before we get to the song itself, and certainly not the usual territory of pop singles.

It’s also one of the most articulate and descriptive chart-topping singles yet. Don McLean takes Van Gogh’s most famous works and turns them into lyrics: Starry, starry night, Paint your palette blue and grey, Look out on a summer’s day, With eyes that know the darkness in my soul…

It’s just a voice, an acoustic guitar, and some light, light backing touches. The gist of the song is that the singer sympathises with Vincent, that he recognises something of himself in the artist’s struggle (this was written before McLean hit the big time with ‘American Pie’), and that perhaps Vincent was the sane one after all. If people know one thing about Vincent Van Gogh, it’s that he cut off his ear and sent it to his brother. But that’s not all that he was. Now I understand, What you tried to say to me, And how you suffered for your sanity… It works also in the voice of Van Gogh’s brother, Theo, who was entwined in Vincent’s life, and who suffered equally under his brother’s illness. It’s strong stuff.

I love the idea that Van Gogh was too pure, too good for this ordinary world. It comes to a height midway through, as McLean describes the day Van Gogh committed suicide: For they could not love you, But still your love was true, And when no hope was left inside on that starry, starry night, You took your life as lovers often do… Some artistic license there, as he shot himself in a wheat field during the day, but it’s a powerful image – that he could have died on a night like the one in his most famous painting. But I could have told you Vincent, That this world was never built for one as beautiful as you… There’s also an urban legend that ‘Vincent’ was played to rapper Tupac on his death-bed, after he had suffered the same fate as Van Gogh. It was, apparently, his favourite song.

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It ends on a gut-punch. Each previous verse has ended on the hope that: They did not listen, They did not know how… Perhaps they’ll listen now…. On the final note, however, this changes to: They were not listening, They’re not listening still, Perhaps they never will… The idiots will always outnumber us. We’re all doomed…

Acoustic singer-songwriter type music is far from being my favourite genre. It’s all too easy to sound clever and profound as long as you sing softly enough and don’t plug your guitar in. Especially in the past few years, every male solo artist to hit the charts seems to have a beard, a beanie hat and observations to make. (I blame Ed Sheeran, personally, but then I’d happily blame all the world’s problems on Sheeran.) However, when a song is written and performed as beautifully as this, with a genuine message and genuine emotion, it’s very powerful. Don McLean had made his name just a few months before with ‘American Pie’, another song built around the death of a cultural icon. You have to wonder if ‘Vincent’ would have been such a big hit had ‘American Pie’ not come along first (it had reached #2 in the UK), especially as this sounds so out of place in a chart dominated by glam and bubblegum, though you’d hope it would have.

Last winter, in those final, blissful pre-coronavirus days, I visited the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. If you have the chance to go one day, do! It displays his pictures in chronological order, and gives the background to his circumstances and mental state at the time of painting. When you get to the end, and see his very last works, it’s genuinely affecting. Maybe this song wouldn’t be hitting me so hard, had I not been there? Who knows. Under the museum is buried a time-capsule containing Vincent’s paintbrushes, and the sheet music to this song. Tens of thousands walk above it every year, to see the work of a once-ignored painter. People did listen, eventually.

308. ‘I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing (In Perfect Harmony)’, by The New Seekers

I knew the chorus of this song, as everyone does, what with it having firmly imbedded itself in our popular culture. And so, I was fully expecting a cheesy, sing-along record…

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I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing (In Perfect Harmony), by The New Seekers (their 1st of two #1s)

4 weeks, from 2nd – 30th January 1972

…but was not prepared for just how sickly saccharine this song truly is. Do not play this record on a full stomach! The melody is jaunty, the vocals are twee: I’d like to build the world a home, And furnish it with love… Grow apple trees, And honey bees, And snow-white turtle doves… I mean, eeesh. (*Insert vomiting emoji*)

The singers, with their gentle acoustic guitars, sound like earnest church youth-camp leaders around a campfire. Or the bouncy volunteers that confront you on the street, asking for your signature in some worthy cause. I’d like to teach the world to sing, In perfect harmony, And I’d like to hold it in my arms, And keep it company… They sound utterly insufferable – in case I wasn’t making that clear – though I wouldn’t bet against at least two of them having a crippling drug addiction, because nobody is naturally this perky. I do like the bass-line, though.

The message is one of peace and love, obviously, which is nice and all. But the lyrics never get above ‘primary school assembly’ level. We’d all like everyone to get along better and love another, obviously, but the Summer of Love has been and gone – with far better music than this – while a couple of years ago it was all doom and gloom at the top of the charts: ‘Bad Moon Rising’ and ‘In the Year 2525’. This record is the sound of people giving up on the hippy dream and/or a cynical counter-culture, and settling for meaningless crap. And listening to this today, given the absolute shitshow that 2020 has been so far, well it’s almost unbearable.

Plus. Plus, plus, plus. The one other thing that everyone knows about ‘I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing’, other than the sugary chorus, is that it originated from a jingle in a Coca-Cola advert. I’d like to buy the world a coke… etc. etc. For this ‘anthem’ of world-peace to have stemmed from one of the world’s mega-corporations, a company that floods every corner of the globe with its spectacularly unhealthy soft drinks and subsequent litter, is the piece de resistance. It’s actually quite funny.

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I’ll get down from my high-horse now. This record wasn’t meant to be taken so seriously. It’s just a cute little pop song aimed at the kids. But, at the same time – back on the high horse for a second – I can’t help feeling that, for people in 1972, spending a few pounds on this shite was the same as people nowadays changing their Facebook profile to reflect whatever the week’s worthy cause is. Making the doer feel better about their privilege, while making no difference whatsoever to the world’s problems.

In fact, I’ve grown to detest this record so much in the past half an hour that I’m going to make a bold, bold claim. That it is worse than ‘Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep’. Yes. ‘CCCC’ was inane and annoying. ‘ILTTTWTS(IPH)’ – that’s one hell of an abbreviation – is inane, annoying, and has ideas way above its station.

Finally, one question needs answering. What relation did The New Seekers have to The (old) Seekers, the Australian folk-pop act who scored two #1s in 1965 with the average ‘I’ll Never Find Another You’ and the dirgey ‘The Carnival Is Over’. Well, both bands share one member: Keith Potger, guitarist, who founded The New Seekers in 1969. They had scored a #2 the year before with ‘Never Ending Song of Love’ and will, I’m sure you’ll be thrilled to discover, top the charts one more time before leaving us in peace forever. Till then…

Follow along through the first (almost) 20 years of the charts, with this playlist:

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.

296. ‘My Sweet Lord’, by George Harrison

I wonder what the odds were on George Harrison being the first Beatle to score a solo chart-topper? You would have assumed it’d be Lennon, who was releasing solo stuff before the Fab Four had even split, then McCartney, with his knack for a pop hook. Then again, George had been getting more of his songs included on their albums from 1968 onwards, and some of the Beatles’ most famous late-era tunes are his – ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’, ‘Something’, ‘Here Comes the Sun’… So maybe it wasn’t such a surprise when he hit top spot less than a year after his former band’s last hit.

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My Sweet Lord, by George Harrison (his 1st of two #1s)

5 weeks, from 24th January – 28th February 1971

And in the end, it wasn’t even close. We are still seven years from a #1 by Paul, and nearly a decade away from one by John, by which time he’ll be dead. Anyway, to the song… There’s something quite ominous in the opening acoustic chords, contrasting nicely with the goofy, tropical, lead guitar riff.

My sweet lord, Mmm my lord, I really want to see you, Really wanna be with you… His voice sounds great – angelic, but gruff and growly when it needs to be. Really wanna see you lord but it takes so long, My lord… First things first, then – is this a religious song? On the face of it, yes – especially when the hallelujahs come in. And does he want proof of God’s existence or, like Clive Dunn before, is he anticipating death? (George Harrison and Clive Dunn asking the big questions at the top of the charts, who’d’ve though it…)

It’s not your typical pop song – no verse, bridge, chorus here. It’s more of a growing chant, a five-minute long mantra, that ascends through several key changes. Now, you can’t ever go wrong with key changes, but at the same time it’s a song that doesn’t really go anywhere. Maybe that’s the intention; but for me it leaves something wanting. ‘My Sweet Lord’ is a song that I loved without really considering why, and I do still really like it, but the more I listen to it the more I wonder if it’s as great as they say…

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Sacrilege? Maybe. Halfway through the Hallelujahs become Hare Krishna’s and other snippets of Vedic prayer. Which answers our earlier question – yes, it is a religious song. Harrison was big into his Hinduism at the time and by combining it with Christian elements he wanted to make a statement on the follies of sectarianism. We all worship the same God at the end of the day, right? (No!, shout all the atheists in the back.)

It ends on a high, like a gospel choir singing it up to the rafters. Among the backing instruments and singers you can hear Ringo, Billy Preston (from ‘Get Back’), and Eric Clapton among others. You might also hear hints of ‘He’s So Fine’ by The Chiffons… Harrison famously lost a copyright case that ruled he had ‘subconsciously copied’ the melody. (I really like this cover by The Belmonts – minus Dion – which splices the two songs together, with lots of added kazoo.)

‘My Sweet Lord’ was on Harrison’s epic triple album ‘All Things Must Pass’ – a shackles-off moment in which he stepped out of Lennon and McCartney’s combined shadow. He would continue to have commercial success throughout the seventies and eighties – by himself, in the supergroup The Travelling Wilburys – and then in the nineties with the two remaining Beatles. The eagle-eyed among you will have noticed, though, that this is his ‘1st of two #1s’… The other? A re-release of ‘My Sweet Lord’ just after his death in 2002. Till then then, George…

Follow along with my Spotify playlist.

292. ‘Woodstock’, by Matthews Southern Comfort

As far as I know, I have never, ever heard this song before. I know Woodstock, the music festival, obviously, and I know Southern Comfort, the whisky flavoured liqueur that I haven’t drunk since an unfortunate incident when I was nineteen… Combining these two things in my mind, I begin to picture a Country & Western, smoke-tinged ballad…

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Woodstock, by Matthews Southern Comfort (their 1st and only #1)

3 weeks, from 25th October – 15th November 1970

…and I’m not a million miles away. It’s a soft record – a soft voice, uber-soft rock – a comfy blanket that wraps itself around you and lulls you to sleep in its echoey rhythm. We are stardust, We are golden, And we’ve got to get ourselves, Back to the garden… The singer is a hitchhiker, on his way to Woodstock. His companion is a child of God, off to join a rock and roll band, looking to set his soul free.

It’s a song for fans of imagery. He feels like a cog, stuck in something turning… At one point he dreams of bombers in the sky that turn into butterflies above our nation, which works both as a trippy picture and as a ‘make love not war’ kind of statement. The garden could be the farm where Woodstock was held, or it could be the Garden of Eden, with the singer hoping for a return to innocence. It’s a melancholy sounding song, though; not one that sounds terribly hopeful. The sixties are over, after all, and the hippy dream has died. Contrast ‘Woodstock’ with the hope of If you’re goin’, To San Francisco, Be sure to wear, Some flowers in your hair… and All you need is love… from just three years ago.

Actually, maybe this #1 officially marks the end of the sixties. 1970 has wandered around without really knowing where it’s going – a year of eclectic chart-toppers. This record could be the gunshot that puts us out of our misery, that leads us into a bold new decade, ten months late… Or not. I have to confess that midway through my first listen to this song, I checked how long was left and my heart sank to see a full minute and a half remaining…

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It’s a bit limp. A little Simon & Garfunkel, a little Eagles, a little Fleetwood Mac, a little meh… I do like the sinister, mournful reverbing solo, though. That bit can stay! Matthews Southern Comfort were a British band, led by singer Iain Matthews, who had previously been in folk band Fairport Convention. He did not, to the best of my knowledge, play at Woodstock. Neither did Joni Mitchell, the writer of this song, which surprised me. She based the lyrics on what she heard from her then boyfriend, Graham Nash of The Hollies (Crosby, Stills & Nash also did a version.) Mitchell’s original – listen here – isn’t as warm or as chart-friendly as Matthews’.

It’s cool that Joni Mitchell has a number one single by proxy, and that one of the biggest pop culture moments of the twentieth century gets a belated mention at the top of the pop charts, but I can’t really warm to this song. It’s just floated past me… And, actually, if you want a proper taste of the Woodstock Music and Arts Fair, then you would do well to hang around and catch our next number one single…

Follow my Spotify playlist with all the #1 singles so far here.

267. ‘Where Do You Go To (My Lovely)’, by Peter Sarstedt

I complained about our last #1 – Amen Corner’s ‘(If Paradise Is) Half As Nice’ – having nothing for the listener to get their teeth into. It just floated along, pleasantly enough… This next #1 though, has enough meat in it for several courses.

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Where Do You Go To (My Lovely), by Peter Sarstedt (his 1st and only #1)

4 weeks, from 26th February – 26th March 1969

It’s a ballad, in the very traditional sense. An epic song – nearly five minutes in length – that tells a story. I love a song that tells a story. A story that’s introduced by some accordions, as you picture the singer strolling alongside the Seine in winter, hands thrust deep in his pockets, a cigarette dangling from the side of his mouth. Mais oui.

He’s rueful, thinking about a girl, as Frenchmen are wont to do. Where do you go to, My lovely, When you’re alone in your bed… Tell me the thoughts that surround you, I want to look inside your head… (Yes I do…) I love those little run-ons at the end of each verse. They add to the idea that this song is being made up on the spot, that it exists only in the singer’s head, as he walks the river banks.

He paints quite the picture of this girl. Beautiful, glamorous, diamonds and pearls in her hair, famous friends and a fancy apartment off the Boulevard St. Michel… She went to the Sorbonne, of course, and talks like Marlene Dietrich. She has Picassos, and a racehorse from the Aga Khan, and sips only the finest brandy… I’m paraphrasing, obviously. All this unfolds over several verses, accompanied only by an acoustic guitar. This song really is all about the lyrics, and the voice that delivers them: full of regret but still defiant.

It’s funny too. The verse about her carefully designed topless swimsuit, for example that gives her: an even suntan, On your back, And on your legs… And then suddenly it’s menacing, when he mocks her fake laugh: a-ha-ha-ha! There’s anger too: They don’t realise where you came from, And I wonder if they really care, Or give a damn… (Note the mild swear word! The worst one so far? Two hundred and sixty seven chart-toppers in.)

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Who is she, then? Who is this deceptive femme fatale? Don’t keep us in suspense any longer, Peter! We know we’re getting to the denouement when the violins come in. Turns out, the singer knew the girl as a child in Naples, when they were both begging in rags. Her name’s Marie-Clair… So look into my face, Marie-Clair, And remember just who you are, Then go and forget me forever, But I know you still bear the scar, Deep inside… (Yes, I do…) As with all the best stories, it leaves things open to interpretation. Were they childhood friends? Young lovers? Brother and sister? Did she betray him to escape their life of poverty…?

The final line, I think, gives it away. I know the thoughts that surround you, ‘Cause I can look inside your head… They are twins! And she did do something terrible to him! Maybe… The same accordions from the intro play us out, as we contemplate this bombshell. Apparently, the title character might have been inspired by the fashion magazine ‘Marie Claire’, or by the actress Sophia Lauren (who was from Naples), or by Sarstedt’s girlfriend… ‘Where Do You Go To (My Lovely)’ both won an Ivor Novello award, and was one of John Peel’s least favourite songs. I can see why you might either love or hate this record. It’s smug, and pretentious, and wordy. Myself, I’m leaning more to the ‘love’ side.

Peter Sarstedt was, disappointingly, not French. He just wrote a very French-sounding chart topper. Don’t worry, though – there will be a genuine French #1 before the year’s out. He was British, though born and raised in India, and was the younger brother of Eden Kane, whom we met back in 1961, when he hit top spot with ‘Well I Ask You’. Which, I think, makes them the first siblings to hit #1, following on from father and daughter Frank and Nancy. The follow-up to ‘Where Do You Go…’ made #10, and that that was that for Sarstedt’s chart career. Knowing he was on to a good thing, he wrote two further instalments of the Marie-Clair story – ‘The Last of the Breed’ and ‘Farewell Marie-Clair’ before he died in 2017.