Random Runners-Up: ‘We Are the Champions’, by Queen

One final runner-up for the week, and a bit of a forgotten classic to finish on…

‘We Are the Champions’, by Queen

#2 for 3 weeks, from 13th Nov-4th Dec 1977 – behind ‘The Name of the Game’ and ‘Mull of Kintyre’

Only kidding. To tell the truth, I always thought that ‘We Are the Champions’ was released as a double-‘A’ with ‘We Will Rock You’. It wasn’t, at least not in the UK, where ‘We Will Rock You’ was the B-side. But if ever there was a song that didn’t need any support, that could stand alone as a statement, ’twas this one.

It’s not that ‘We Are the Champions’ invented the rock opera. But before this, rock operas were spread out over entire albums. Queen managed to get the form down to three perfect minutes. The choruses: rock, soaring rock. The verses: pure Freddie Mercury theatre. The way he toys with the line You brought me fame and fortune and everything that goes with it…! is sublime. It doesn’t come close to scanning with the song’s rhythm, but he makes it work.

This record has been slightly lost to sports events now, blasted out after every cup final and league title because, well, no time for losers. But in its original form it feels like more of a positivity anthem. We are the champions, all of us, and we’ve all had to struggle to get there. Mercury himself, of course, was no stranger to not having things easy, growing up non-white and non-heterosexual in a time not much inclined to accept either of those things. And yet he took the sand kicked in his face and came through…

It’s easy to be cynical, and I can be cynical about most things in life… But I refuse to be cynical about this song. It’s irrepressible. It’s been confirmed, in a 2011 study by actual scientists, to be the catchiest song ever written. And in the recent ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ biopic, Queen’s performance of this song at Live Aid drew the film to a close and sent me out the cinema thinking, briefly, that I had just seen the best movie ever (I hadn’t, but there are few films that wouldn’t be improved by having a performance of ‘We Are the Champions’ tacked on the end…)

Back to the regular countdown next week.

Random Runners-Up: ‘The Son of Hickory Holler’s Tramp’, by O.C. Smith

The late sixties were one of the most eclectic periods for the UK charts, as the classic mid-sixties beat sound fractured, and a multitude of different genres filled the void.

‘Son of Hickory Holler’s Tramp’, by O. C. Smith

#2 for 3 weeks, from 3rd-24th July 1968, behind ‘Baby Come Back’

Which means country/soul oddities like this were free to spend three weeks at #2, behind the Equals’ reggae-rock chart-toppers. I say ‘country/soul’ because, while the sound is pure rhythm and blues, with a brilliantly funky bass-line, the story it tells is one of pure country woe…

Oh the path was deep and wide, From footsteps leading to our cabin, Above the door there burned a scarlet lamp… Daddy’s a drunk who packed up and left, leaving the weeds high and the crops dry so, yes, mum’s turned to whoring to feed her fourteen children. And yet, it’s an overwhelmingly positive song. Yes, I’m the son of Hickory Holler’s tramp! announces O. C. Smith, unashamed of how his mother made ends meet.

The neighbours did nothing to help, but did plenty of talking, and judging. The children didn’t notice though – all we cared about was momma’s chicken dumplings... – and grew up loved and nurtured. Mum’s dead now, Smith sings, but every Sunday fourteen roses arrive at her graveside. By the end, as Smith declares once again just who he’s the son of… Well, if there isn’t a tear in your eye.

It’s a very progressive song – probably long before ‘progressive’ became a thing – and I wonder why such a big hit has been erased from the sixties canon? Maybe it’s because the subject matter is just a little too on the nose, a little too celebratory towards the world’s oldest profession? Either way, I’m glad the date-generator threw up this forgotten hit. Ocie Lee Smith had many chart entries on the Billboard chart in the sixties and seventies, but in Britain he is a bone-fide one-hit wonder. He died in 2001.

One last number two for you tomorrow, and it’s one we can all sing along to…

Random Runners-Up: ‘Cloud Lucky Seven’, by Guy Mitchell

My third randomly selected #2 for the week brings us all the way back to the early weeks of 1954. Before Elvis, before the Beatles, before colour TV and motorways, there was Guy Mitchell…

‘Cloud Lucky Seven’, by Guy Mitchell

#2 for 1 week – 12th – 19th February 1954, behind ‘Oh Mein Papa’

I have a huge soft-spot for Guy Mitchell. Not only did he have a hunky, all-American boy next door vibe going on – see the pic above! – but during the early months of this blog, as I trawled through many overwrought and overblown, and often quite dull, pre-rock #1s, Mr. Mitchell would regularly pop up with something a bit more sprightly.

‘Cloud Lucky Seven’ came right in the middle of Mitchell’s four chart-topping singles, and is a pre-rock hit by-numbers. It’s almost unbearably jaunty, the backing singers sound like drunken relatives at a wedding, and there are horns. Boy, are there horns… It’s a bit jazz, a bit swing, very music-hall, and with no hint at the rock ‘n’ roll revolution that’s just around the corner.

What saves it from sounding ridiculous to modern ears is Guy himself. He isn’t, to be honest, the best technical singer. He’s no Al Martino, or Eddie Fisher, but his voice has a throaty, homely charm. He sounds like he’s having fun, as if he’s well-aware that he’s singing a load of tosh (see also ‘She Wears Red Feathers’) and being paid handsomely to do so.

Lyrically, the song is about love as clouds (that’s another pre-rock trick: love as birds chirping, fluffy clouds, twinkly stars…) Cloud one is where you land when you meet that special someone, while cloud lucky seven is the cloud nearest heaven… Which means… This is actually a song about getting laid?? Those pre-rockers were just as horny as those that came later, they just had to hide it behind bizarre metaphors involving clouds. Which means, as he belts out that there’s one more cloud to go…! it’s not only the best bit of the song; but you can almost hear the knowing wink. Guy, you sly dog, you!

Two more #2s to come…

Random Runners-Up: ‘Are You Sure?’, by The Allisons

Part II of this week’s runners-up feature, and the random date generator throws up one of the longest-running #2s in chart history…

‘Are You Sure?’, by The Allisons

#2 for 6 weeks, from 9th-23rd Mar / 30th Mar–27th Apr 1961 (behind ‘Walk Right Back’ / ‘Ebony Eyes’ and ‘Wooden Heart’)

Six weeks, over the course of two months, is a long and very unlucky amount of time to be marooned in second place, but it will happen if you’re up against two of pop music’s most famous acts.

This is a slice of early-sixties pop that probably sounded a little old-fashioned even when it hit the charts. The staccato strings and jaunty pace ape Adam Faith‘s hits, which in turn borrowed heavily from Buddy Holly’s posthumous chart-topper ‘It Doesn’t Matter Anymore’. The Allisons are also clearly going for an Everly Brothers vibe, but when you listen to the Brothers’ record that kept this off the top then there’s no contest. It’s pleasant enough, and over in a trice; but it’s a reminder of why The Beatles couldn’t come fast enough…

Goodbye, Farewell, I’m not sure what to do… Compare and contrast the well-mannered harmonising here with the Greek-stomping hit I featured yesterday, ‘Bend It!’. Only five and a half years separate these two songs, but they just so happen to have been the most fertile five years in pop music history.

The Allisons were, perhaps surprisingly, not actual brothers. Bob Day and John Alford were simply marketed that way. And this record has a particular claim to fame, perhaps even more important than its long run at number two… It was the first big British Eurovision hit single. The Allisons represented the UK at the 1961 contest, finishing in second place. It’s fairly middling as Eurovision singles go: not the best, but far from being the worst… Yet it was the duo’s only real hit, though they would continue performing for many years afterwards.

Next up, tomorrow, and we’re going even further back in time…

Random Runners-Up: ‘Bend It!’, by Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Tich

I’m going to spend the next week in the company of some songs that almost featured on this blog in their own right. Instead, all these hits peaked in the most frustrating position of all… #2. As with this feature last year, they’ve been chosen at random – honest – and the date generator has thrown up some interesting choices. Two songs I’ve never heard of, a couple that I’m acquainted with, and one that nearly everyone on this planet knows word for word… Kicking us off, here’s one I’m acquainted with:

‘Bend It!’, by Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Tich

#2 for 2 weeks, from 6th-20th October 1966 (behind ‘Distant Drums’, by Jim Reeves)

One of the kookiest bands of the decade – in a decade that wasn’t short on kooky bands – sat in second place for a fortnight with this Greek-sounding foot-stomper. Bend It! Bend It! they exhort… Just a little bit… It’s all about two people fitting together, like a jigsaw puzzle. It’s all a little suggestive – suggestive enough to get it banned and hastily re-recorded in the US.

Like many of DDDBM&T’s hits, ‘Bend It!’ doesn’t follow standard pop song conventions. Each verse works its way up to crashing, plate-smashing crescendo, before settling back down to a woozy stomp. Apparently it was inspired by ‘Zorba’s Dance’ – that tune you hear in every Greek restaurant. I’d say it was more than just ‘inspired by’ that earlier hit…

Still it’s a fun tune. Dave Dee and pals knew how to keep it interesting. A year or so after this they scored their only chart-topper, the epic ‘Legend of Xanadu’. That was another fun one, and fairly unique for the band in that the title wasn’t followed by an exclamation mark. They also scored Top 5 hits with the thumping ‘Hold Tight!’ (their breakthrough and my favourite), ‘Okay!’, and ‘Zabadak!’

The fact that this single featured on an album called ‘If Music Be the Food of Love… Then Prepare for Indigestion’ is both brilliant, and a fitting summary of the band’s approach to making pop music. Try everything once! It’s just a shame that they seem to have slipped from the official sixties pantheon.

Another #2 is up tomorrow…

Random Runners-up: ‘Let’s Work Together’, by Canned Heat

My special feature for the week is a moment in the sun for the singles that didn’t quite make it to the top. These aren’t particularly long-running, or unlucky #2 singles. They may not even be particularly good… They all simply peaked in the runners-up position.

Last one, and we’re off to the seventies today…

‘Let’s Work Together’, by Canned Heat

#2 for 1 week, behind ‘Love Grows (Where My Rosemary Goes)‘, from 15th – 22nd Feb. 1970

A groovy last runner-up for the week. It’s got that slightly fried feel of some of the late-sixties/early-seventies #1s – ‘Spirit in the Sky’, ‘Bad Moon Rising’ and ‘I Hear You Knocking’ – as if the band has been keeping the party going that little bit too long.

The message is positive, though: Together we stand, Divided we fall… Every boy, every woman and a-man…! while the frazzled lead guitar chops and changes, and the rhythm section chugs along with a nasty edge. It really feels like this should be the backing to a tale of sleaze and sauciness – a ‘Honky Tonk Women’ Pt II, for example – not such a feel-good rallying cry.

Lead-singer on this record, Bob Hite, also gives the lyrics a threatening edge. He snarls, rather than encourages. Come on, come on, Let’s work together… he sings, though I’m not sure I would, with him. I like it though, this scuzzy, bluesy, boogie-woogying tune.

It had been written and recorded in 1962, as ‘Let’s Stick Together’ by Wilbert Harrison, before being rerecorded in 1969, by the same guy, as ‘Let’s Work Together’. His version was the hit in the US, while Canned Heat had the success in the UK. It was by far their biggest hit here. I knew it best through the Bryan Ferry version, which he turned back to ‘Let’s Stick Together’… Way to complicate things… Ferry took that to #3 in 1976 – a great, if slightly glossier, reimagining in which he pleads with his wife not to divorce him.

I’ll leave you with the version that made #2 in early 1970, behind ‘Love Grows…’ (what a great top 2!) Enjoy. I’ll do another blast of random runners-up sometime, it was fun. The regular countdown will resume over the weekend.

Random Runners-up: ‘Cool Water’, by Frankie Laine with the Mellomen

My special feature for the week is a moment in the sun for the singles that didn’t quite make it to the top. These aren’t particularly long-running, or unlucky #2 singles. They may not even be particularly good… They all simply peaked in the runners-up position.

Today’s random runner-up takes us back a good ol’ while…

‘Cool Water’, by Frankie Laine with the Mellomen

#2 for 3 weeks, behind ‘Rose Marie‘, from 5th – 26th August 1955

Before Slade or T Rex, before the Stones and the Beatles, before even Elvis himself, one man dominated the UK singles chart in its earliest days: Frankie Laine.

In 1953, the first full year of the singles chart, he scored three #1s that lasted at the top for a staggering twenty-eight weeks (!) This record was his 16th Top 20 hit in under 3 years. Everything he recorded turned to chart gold… Which perhaps explains the success of ‘Cool Water.’ It was a hit by default.

Or maybe its been so long since I reviewed a pre-rock single I’ve forgotten how dull most of them were. It’s a song from a Western, about a cowboy lost in the desert, dragging his horse, Dan, along in search of water. Cool, clear, water….

Dan can y’see that big green tree, Where the water’s runnin’ free…? Dan doesn’t answer because it’s just a mirage, and he’s just a horse. It’s very 1955, this song, and it fits right in with the spaghetti-western film-score feel of #1s like ‘The Man From Laramie‘, ‘Give Me Your Word‘, and the 11-week mega chart-topper that held this off top-spot, ‘Rose Marie’.

A few months after this hit #2, ‘Rock Around the Clock‘ would come along and that would be that. Rock ‘n’ roll would be here to stay. Frankie Laine’s chart-topping days would be numbered, although he remained a recording artist into the 1970s. In fact, he would re-record ‘Cool Water’ in 1961, for an album titled ‘Hell Bent for Leather’ (Is it just me, or does that sound more S&M than C&W…?)

Meanwhile, the Mellomen, who provide the actually quite cool deep-voiced Cooool Water… backing vocals, have also appeared on a #1 themselves: Rosemary Clooney’s ‘Mambo Italiano‘ earlier in the same year. A fun, catchy song that reminds us there actually were some great chart-toppers before Bill Haley and Co. came along.

One last #2 coming up tomorrow…

Random Runners-up: ‘I’m Gonna Be Strong’, by Gene Pitney

I’m running a new feature this week – a moment in the sun for the singles that didn’t quite make it to the top. These aren’t particularly long-running, or unlucky #2 singles. They may not even be particularly good… They all simply peaked in the runners-up position.

Today’s random runner-up…

‘I’m Gonna Be Strong’, by Gene Pitney

#2 for 2 weeks, behind ‘Little Red Rooster‘ and ‘I Feel Fine‘, from 3rd-17th Dec. 1964

It reminds me of ‘I Believe‘, with its strong, deliberate chords in the intro. It also reminds me of Roy Orbison’s boleros – his mini-operas – ‘Running Scared’ and ‘It’s Over‘ that grow and grow to outrageously dramatic conclusions.

I’m gonna be strong, And stand as tall as I can, Yes I’m gonna be strong, And let you run along… Gene’s gonna put a brave face on a break-up, gonna look his girl in the eye, smile, and walk away. But, as he finally admits in the final line, as the crescendo crashes: After you kiss me goodbye… How I’ll break down and cry….!

He gives it everything, does Mr. Pitney. It is a song for blowing away the cobwebs, for getting you out of bed on a winter’s morning. It sounds a little old-fashioned, especially considering the songs that kept it off the top, but when someone performs a song like this, with gusto and volume, you’ve got to tip your hat.

Our first two runners-up, The Spencer Davis Group and Connie Francis, had already had #1s. Gene Pitney hasn’t, and he’ll have to wait a good long while for his one and only chart-topper. He scored ten Top 10s between 1963 & ’68, bookended by what are probably his most famous songs (i.e. the ones I know): ‘Twenty-Four Hours From Tulsa’ and ‘Something’s Gotten Hold of My Heart’.

Random Runners-up: ‘Mama’ / ‘Robot Man’, by Connie Francis

I’m running a new feature this week – a moment in the sun for the singles that didn’t quite make it to the top. These aren’t particularly long-running, or unlucky #2 singles. They may not even be particularly good… They all simply peaked in the runners-up position.

Today’s random runner-up…

‘Mama’ / ‘Robot Man’, by Connie Francis

#2 for 1 week, behind ‘Three Steps to Heaven‘, from 23rd – 30th June 1960

A double-‘A’ to double your pleasure. Except… I haven’t missed these OTT pre-rock intros. Strings swirl, soar, flutter and fly – you know the score. Even in 1960 this sounded old-fashioned. When the evening shadows fall, And the lovely day is through… Darkness falls, and Connie Francis gets to thinking about a lost love. Not a boyfriend, though… Her ‘Mama’.

Connie Francis had two chart-toppers in 1958, the all-time classic ‘Who’s Sorry Now’ and another double-‘A’ in ‘Stupid Cupid’ / ‘Carolina Moon’. They were great rock ‘n’ roll singles (OK, ‘Carolina Moon’ was a bang-average ballad, but still). This though… this is not for me. It’s beautifully sang, gorgeously orchestrated, all that kind of thing, but no. I give thanks that the days of overwrought dramatic ballads hitting #1 are long gone.

‘Mama’ was from Francis’s album ‘Italian Favourites’. She is Italian-American, although she apparently couldn’t speak the language fluently and had to get a tutor to correct her pronunciation as she sang. And perhaps she was ahead of the curve… In a few months Elvis would return from his stint in the army by belting out ‘It’s Now or Never‘ and ‘Surrender‘ – both based on old Italian hits.

Had this made it to #1 then the most interesting thing about it would have been that it was sung largely in a foreign language – not many chart-toppers can claim that – and that it was four minutes long (making it the longest #1 up to that point.) But it didn’t, so all that is moot.

Luckily for us, just before ‘Mama’ lulls us into a stupor, we can flip the disc and enjoy ‘Robot Man’. It’s Connie Francis ™ rock ‘n’ roll by numbers – a mix of ‘Stupid Cupid’ and ‘Lipstick on Your Collar’ – but it’s more than welcome. Plus it’s got a bizarre B-movie sounding intro because, well, robots.

Connie’s sick of ‘real life boys’ giving her grief, so she wishes she could have a robot man. (Or, as Connie sings it in her New Jersey-by-way-of-Alabama twang, a roo-bot mayun.) That way, she wouldn’t have to put up with any of his human shit. We would never fight, Cos it would be impossible for him to speak!

But, if science fiction has taught us anything it is that robots don’t stay obedient for long. They will learn, they will evolve, and they will enslave us. Soon Connie will be chained to a bucket and mop, reminiscing about flesh and blood boys whose worst fault was that they didn’t phone.

Another runner-up tomorrow…