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.

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:

381. ‘D.I.V.O.R.C.E.’, by Billy Connolly

OK… We shouldn’t be surprised by any more of the curveballs that 1975 throws us, but still… OK. What have we here…?

D.I.V.O.R.C.E., by Billy Connolly (his 1st and only #1)

1 week, from 16th – 23rd November 1975

A spelling lesson from Scotland’s national comedian? A piss-take of a Tammy Wynette  classic? A genuinely funny novelty song atop the charts…?! All of the above! In the Wynette version, of course, she’s trying to hide the D.I.V.O.R.C.E from her little son by spelling it out, rather than saying it aloud.

Here, though, Billy Connolly tells the story of taking his dog to the vet. Our little dog, Is six years old, And he’s smart as any damn kid… Words like S.H.O.T., Or W.O.R.M., These are words that make him S.Q.U.I.R.M… His Q.U.A.R.A.N.T.I.N.E. starts today… (an all too prescient line for 2021.) All very amusing, but how do we get to the D-word? Well, the dog bites the vet, Billy argues with the wife, and that’s that… Now I’m going down the town tonight, To get a new B.I.R.D.…

I am smiling, I admit, because I’m enjoying a single so unashamedly Scottish at #1. It’s been quite the year for Scots topping the charts: Pilot, a couple from the Rollers, Rod Stewart (not actually Scottish, but we’ll take him) and now this. And, compared to some recent novelty hits – I’m looking at you Ray Stevens! – it’s genuinely quite funny. Plus, being Scottish, it’s possibly the rudest #1 single so far.

There are a few ‘damns’, and he spells out B.U.M. Oh yeah, and there’s the bit where his wife calls him an ‘effing C’ (though I can’t find a version in which that line’s not bleeped out.) By the end, Billy’s just waiting for his wife and his dug tae get hauled away. Oh I must admit, That dog is acting, Q.U.E.R. Queer… (not a typo, he genuinely misses an E, in order for it to scan.)

There’s a great clip of Connolly performing this on Top Of The Pops, in which he can’t stop giggling, presumably because he can’t believe that he has scored a best-seller with this nonsense. Ask most people today, though – they’d know who Billy Connolly is but I imagine they’d be surprised to learn he had a number one single under his belt. But, you know, he was a hot young comedian, Tammy Wynette was in vogue after her own chart-topper earlier in the year, and there was clearly an insatiable appetite for novelty singles in the mid-seventies.

Again, this is absent from Spotify, as so many recent hits are because, presumably, everyone’s forgotten that it exists. Hey ho. This is the penultimate #1 of 1975, our most eclectic year yet, and for the finale we’ll meet one of the weirdest chart-topping singles ever recorded. Except this is one I am sure you have heard a million, nay a billion, times…

375. ‘Barbados’, by Typically Tropical

Ladies and Gentlemen, Welcome aboard Coconut Airlines… It’s August ’75, and we’re spending the summer in the Caribbean.

Barbados, by Typically Tropical (their 1st and only #1)

1 week, from 3rd – 10th August 1975

‘Captain Tobias Wilcock’ delivers a pretty convincing pre-flight welcome, detailing our cruising altitude and speed, sounding just like what you might hear if you stepped on a plane today. Until he reminds us to refrain from smoking until the aircraft is airborne… that is. Ah, the seventies.

Woah, I’m going to Barbados, Woah, Back to the palm trees… Let’s address the elephant in the room before going any further. We’ve got two white guys, one of whom is giving us a heavy Caribbean accent (ah, the seventies…) I’m going to see my girlfriend, In the sunny Caribbean sea…

London’s rainy, Brixton’s a mess: it’s time to go home. ‘Barbados’ is one of the first ‘summer holiday’ hits – not a song about summer (we’ve had plenty of them); more a song that sums up the summer holiday feeling – the escape from the daily grind to a world of sun and cocktails. A song that wouldn’t hit #1 at any other time of year. (The ‘90s will be the peak of this phenomenon, when record buyers will send one cheesy Europop record after another to the top of the charts.)

However, the singer doesn’t seem to have much intention of coming back from Barbados. Maybe he’s there to stay. Maybe this isn’t a holiday hit at all! The fact his girlfriend is called ‘Mary Jane’ adds another layer to it… Maybe he’s just high as a kite? Layers upon layers… The song itself is catchy – I like the twiddly synth riff – but very disposable. By the end, the cabin crew have taken over again, preparing us for landing: The weather is fine, with a maximum temperature of ninety degrees Fahrenheit… Sounds lovely!

If time and space permitted, I might make more of social commentary on the growing accessibility of foreign travel in the 1970s, and the growing impact of the Windrush generation on British culture. Plus, there’s this decade’s clear and undying love for a novelty single. All of which culminate in a week at the top for Typically Tropical, who were two Trojan Records engineers, Jeff Calvert and Max West, stepping out from behind their mixing desks to record this single. It is a 100% certified one-hit wonder: none of their later singles charted at all.

I knew this song as a teen, as ‘We’re Going to Eat Pizza’… sorry… ‘We’re Going to Ibiza’, in which it was neither sampled nor covered, more reimagined, by one of those Euro-cheese acts I mentioned earlier: The Vengaboys. I’m not linking to it, though, as we’ll be meeting it atop the charts in twenty-four years.

Finally, it’s worth mentioning that yet again this is a record completely absent from Spotify. It’s interesting to observe that it wasn’t until 1972 that I encountered this problem. All those pre-rock ‘n’ roll #1s that nobody has listened to in decades were all present and correct, but several big hits from the mid-seventies aren’t. Not sure what point I want to make, but it’s definitely something to note.

371. ‘Whispering Grass’, by Windsor Davies & Don Estelle

Well, what have we here then… On first glance, I thought it sounds quite poetic: ‘Whispering Grass’. Something Wordsworth might have written about on one of his Lakeland walks…

Whispering Grass, by Windsor Davies & Don Estelle (their 1st and only #1)

3 weeks, from 1st – 22nd June 1975

I’m going to have to split this review into two parts. Part I is what I make of the song, Part II will be what the hell this record actually is. Here goes. It’s quite nice – a lilting piano and some nice harmonies – and very old-fashioned. This must be a cover of an oldie, from the twenties or thirties.

The two vocalists, I am unsure which one is Davies and which is Estelle, are contrasting. One has a deep, Welsh baritone, and does a spoken intro and outro, and some backing bum-bum-bums. The other does most of the actual singing: Why do you whisper, Green grass…? Whispering grass, The trees don’t have to know….

So it’s a bit of a pun: grass as in the green stuff growing from the ground, and grass as in a tell-tale. It’s cute. Don’t you tell it to the trees, Or she will tell it to the birds and bees… the Welshman intones. It’s a novelty, that much is clear, but it’s not an offensively annoying one. This is quite a listenable record. But… I give up. Time for Part II. Help me, Google…

OK, so I half-knew that this was a spin-off single from a popular sitcom, ‘It Ain’t Half Hot, Mum’, set among an army theatre troop in British India in the Second World War. Windsor Davies and Don Estelle are performing it in character: Davies as Sgt Major Williams and Estelle as Gunner ‘Lofty’ Sugden. It was quite the popular show, running for eight series until 1981.

But, as pleasant as this record is, I can’t help feeling a bit left out. It’s clearly some kind of in-joke that you would have got had you been alive in 1975, and a fan of the programme. At this far of a remove it’s little more than a shrug and move along moment. I have never seen ‘It Ain’t Half Hot, Mum’, as it doesn’t get repeated very often. (A ‘70s sitcom, set in the colonies, with white actors playing Indians, featuring lots of men in theatre drag… You can imagine it being deemed ‘problematic’ nowadays. Having never seen it, I will defer judgement.)

‘Whispering Grass’ was indeed a hit from the ‘40s – 1940 to be precise – for The Ink Spots. What’s clear from this and the previous #1 – ‘Stand By Your Man’ – is that the grown-ups had momentarily wrested control of the top spot from the young ‘uns. You can imagine this record being bought by mums and dads, grannies and grandads, in their droves. While the kids, and the bloggers writing about the song forty-five years later, look slightly bemused, and then move on.

356. ‘Kung Fu Fighting’, by Carl Douglas

Good Lord, we did fall hard for disco in the summer of 1974, didn’t we! It suddenly feels like I’m covering the charts of a completely different country, so quickly has the musical landscape changed.

Kung Fu Fighting, by Carl Douglas (his 1st and only #1)

3 weeks, from 15th September – 6th October 1974

‘Kung Fu Fighting’ becomes the third disco #1 in four, which means that disco was cool for precisely two songs. Because this record, for all its many good points, is not ‘cool’. It’s – let’s be honest – ridiculous. Woah-oh-ho-ho… everyone knows the intro, the slow build up, the Oriental riff… Woah-oh-ho-ho…

And then click. Disco time. Everybody was kung fu fighting… Huh!… Hah! Those kicks were fast as lightning… (There seems to be no consensus on whether it is ‘those kicks’, ‘those kids’ or ‘those cats’. I’ve always thought it was ‘kicks’ – it makes sense in a song about a martial art – so I’ll stick with it.) This was the era of the classic Hong Kong Kung Fu movie – Bruce Lee, ‘Enter the Dragon’ and all that – and the songwriters seized the zeitgeist, mixed it with the up and coming new club sound, and scored a ginormous number one hit all around the globe.

Even in 2020, it is a song that most people will know. I’m not sure lines like they were funky Chinamen from funky Chinatown… would pass the censors these days, mind, especially when coupled with the aforementioned ‘Oriental riff’. (Though the way they manage to translate the riff into disco strings is probably the best bit of the whole song.) Come verse II, we meet funky Billy Chin and little Sammy Chong… he said, ‘Here comes the Big Boss’, let’s get it on… I mean, it’s dumb, but you’ll struggle to argue that it’s not fun.

Actually, it’s a hard song to really place. It’s a little too hip to be a novelty, but it’s way too silly to be treated as a serious pop record. Let’s treat it, then, as a slice of classic cheese. Throw it on at the end of a wedding disco and watch people fly. Literally, in some cases. Meanwhile, twelve-year-old me still has a massive soft spot for the Bus Stop version, which reached #8 in the late ‘90s, and which takes the disco of the original, ups the Kung Fu sound effects, adds rapping and a manic Eurodance beat to create something… Well, let’s just call it ‘something.’

Perhaps unsurprisingly, there was nobody of Chinese origin involved in the making of ‘Kung Fu Fighting’. Carl Douglas was Jamaican, while producer Biddu (a disco pioneer) was British-Indian. Douglas is almost the very definition of a one-hit wonder… alas the follow-up to this – ‘Dance the Kung Fu’ – made #35 (while he was also credited on the Bus Stop version.) To his credit, he is still happy to perform the song live, more often than not in his red Shaolin monk’s uniform, and if he’s proud of his biggest hit then who am I to judge?

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.

339. ‘Daydreamer’ / ‘The Puppy Song’, by David Cassidy

I was a bit underwhelmed by David Cassidy’s first #1 – his cover of ‘How Can I Be Sure’ – to the extent that I gave it a ‘Meh’ Award. But no hard feelings, Dave – I approach this double-‘A’ with open ears.

Daydreamer / The Puppy Song, by David Cassidy (his 2nd and final #1)

3 weeks, from 21st October – 11th November 1973

I do like his committed yet breathy delivery, the way he commits to every, single, sy-lla-ble. I remember April, When the sun was in the sky… I was worried when I pressed play and was presented with the lightest, tinkliest seventies soft-rock intro. But by the time we get to the chorus it’s turned into a nice, swaying pop song, with more than a hint of Bacharach and David to it: I’m… Just… A… Daydreamer, Walking in the rain…

Back in the spring he was in love; now he wanders after rainbows. You get the feeling he’ll be alright, though… Life is much too beautiful, To live it all alone… as he saunters off after that pot of gold. I would like another extra little hook to sell it to me properly. As it is, I quite like it – he won’t be winning another ‘Meh’ award for this one.

Another reason why this disc won’t be getting described as ‘Meh’ is thanks to the song on the flip-side. I have to admit, before listening to it, I feared the worst. The aural scars from the last chart-topper to feature the word ‘Puppy’ still linger. But I needn’t have worried, ‘The Puppy Song’ is a fun, music-hall tune.

If only I could have a puppy, I’d call myself so very lucky… He wants a pup, one to take everywhere and share a cup of tea with (dog’s don’t drink tea, David!) I know that he, No he’d never bite me… Part of me does wonder if the ‘puppy’ is going to be a metaphor – Cassidy’s ‘ding-a-ling’ as it were – but nope. It’s simply a song about wanting a friend.

It’s just as lightweight as ‘Daydreamer’; but more fun. David sounds like he’s enjoying himself, scatting and ad-libbing away. Come the end his friends have joined him for a good old fashioned knees-up… We, We’d be so happy together, Yodelly-odelly-odelly-oh! It’s a song so catchy and good-natured that I can even forgive the slight forays into yodelling.

Though it sounds like a relic from the 1920s, ‘The Puppy Song’ dates from as recently as 1969, when Harry Nilsson featured it on his first album. He had written it for another earlier chart-topper, Miss Mary Hopkin, who also included it on an album. Neither of these three versions stray very far from one another, but think I like the goofiness of Cassidy’s version best.

So, David Cassidy’s brief UK chart-topping career ends on a bit of a high with two very different sounding songs (though I do like the fact that they are both almost exactly the same length). He’d have one further Top 10 hit, though the truth was he struggled with his teen-idol status, and longed to be taken more seriously. The hysteria that followed him around was never to his liking, and it culminated in the death of a fourteen-year-old fan in a stampede at one of his shows in London. He quit touring and acting in 1975, focusing more on recording the music he wanted to. I remember him as a fixture on chat shows and light-entertainment growing up, but it seems he never really managed to feel at ease with himself and his public image. He died from liver-failure in 2017.

Which suddenly turns the silliness of ‘The Puppy Song’ into a tears-of-a-clown moment… Maybe he wasn’t enjoying himself very much at all when he recorded it. Maybe he really did just want a friend? A bit of a downer to end on, maybe. But then, the pop music business often isn’t as happy as the executives would have us believe. RIP David.

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…?

1729225JPG

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.

s-l1600

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!

323. ‘My Ding-A-Ling’, by Chuck Berry

And so we come to our alma mater. We must do our alma mater

bb24-2017-coda-berry-billboard-1548-768x433

My Ding-a-Ling, by Chuck Berry (his 1st and only #1)

4 weeks, from 19th November – 17th December 1972

Come along one and all, for the touching tale of a young boy and his favourite childhood toy: When I was, A little bitty boy, My grandmother bought me a cute little toy… Silver bells, Hanging on a string, She told me it was my ding-a-ling-a-ling…

In this live-est of live number ones, the audience sing approximately half of the song. The girls in the audience give us My… While the boys give us Ding-a-Ling! Girls: I want you to play with my… Boys: Ding-a-Ling! While Chuck croons his encouragement: Beautiful! I think it’s a beautiful little song, really I do…

Mum takes the boy to grammar school, but he stops off in the vestibule. (Find me, if you can, another #1 single that includes the word ‘vestibule’.) Every time that bell would ring, Catch me playing with my ding-a-ling-a-ling… Life brings along many trials and tribulations for the hero of the piece but first and foremost, no matter the danger, the lad looks after his prized possession. Climbing the garden wall, swimming across Turtle Creek… All the while holding onto his ding-a-ling. You can guess where every verse is going after the first line; but that’s the beauty of it. Like all lame jokes you can see it coming a mile off, bounding over the horizon like a big dumb dog.

And Chuck Berry’s enthusiasm for this silliest of silly songs really helps to sell it. The spoken asides – the two girls singing in harmony, the guy singing in rhyme (that’s alright, brother, you gotta right baby) – are the best bits. In an extended version that runs to well over eleven minutes, Berry can be heard briefing the audience on how to sing. It is complete end-of-the-pier, pantomime smut, with lines like: We’ll teach the boy’s first, cos they’ve only got one part… (You notice how the boy’s part starts rising right there?)… Now boys you gotta come in strong with your ding-a-lings… It’s a very funny listen – those aren’t even the dirtiest bits – if your sense of humour is as underdeveloped as mine… When it comes to the verse dedicated to those who will not sing, the glee in Berry’s voice as he changes the lyrics to Your ding-a-ling, Your ding-a-ling, We saw you playin’ with your ding-a-ling…! is unmistakeable.

Chuck+Berry+My+Ding-A-Ling+-+Inj-493600

I’ve been looking forward to writing about ‘My Ding-A-Ling’ ever since I started this blog. For a start, it’s Chuck Berry finally getting a #1 single. He, more than any other artist, is rock ‘n’ roll. He’d only had one (1!) Top 20 hit in the fifties – ‘Sweet Little Sixteen’, which peaked at #16! In the sixties, when his influence on beat bands became evident, he started hitting the top 10 with discs like ‘No Particular Place to Go’. By 1972, though, he was a veteran; a legacy act. This had been recorded in February, at the Lanchester Arts Festival in Coventry, and was belatedly pushed as a single by a radio station in Boston.

The other reason I’d been looking forward to writing about this record? The controversy, of course. Radio stations refused to play it (duh). Not that there’s anything wrong with the lyrics on face-value, but the fun that Chuck and the audience are having singing along like drunks at closing time means that even the most innocent of minds can get in on the innuendo. Mary Whitehouse, last seen campaigning against Alice Cooper’s ‘School’s Out’, claimed that whole classes of young boys across the nation were lowering their trousers, ‘singing the song and giving it the indecent interpretation… that is so obvious.’ Which, if they weren’t doing before Mary made this claim; they certainly were afterwards.

This tune had been around for a long time, since the 19th century in fact, in the form of the American folk number ‘Little Brown Jug’. It was first recorded as ‘My Ding-a-Ling’ by Dave Bartholomew in 1952, and if you thought Berry’s version was bawdy then you’re in for a treat with the original (sample lyric: When you’re young and on the go, Your ding-a-ling won’t ever get sore…)

There are a lot of people who think of it as sacrilege that this was Chuck Berry’s biggest hit. Which I understand, on one level. But, at least it’s fun. Compare and contrast with Eddie Cochran – another rock ‘n’ roller who, after genre-defining hits like ‘Summertime Blues’ and ‘C’mon Everybody’ reached #1 with the soppy ‘Three Steps to Heaven’. Plus, he was dead. Chuck Berry had decades of playing with his ding-a-ling to come after this (though, given some of the allegations made against him over the years that might not be the best way to phrase it). He died in 2017, aged ninety.

To conclude, then. This may be puerile, and silly. It may not be anywhere near as momentous a record as ‘Johnny B. Goode’, or ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Music’, or ‘Maybelline’, or hundreds of Chuck Berry’s earlier hits. But I love it for what it is. Somehow, some way, ‘My Ding-A-Ling’ is every bit as rock ‘n’ roll as his classic hits.

Follow along with my #1s Blog playlist, here.