412. ‘Way Down’, by Elvis Presley

Do you remember the early 1960s? (Not literally – I mean in terms of this blog.) Back when every third #1 was by Elvis? Those three years in which he dominated the top spot like no one before or since, not even The Beatles? Amazingly, given the heights of his heyday, this is only his second chart-topper in twelve years. ‘The Wonder of You’ came just after his leather-clad comeback, and marked the start of the Vegas years. Since then he’s descended into a jump-suited parody of himself, mumbling his way through residencies with sweat-soaked towels round his ever-widening neck. From Sun Records, to Elvis the Pelvis, to the army, the movies and the rhinestones, there was still time for one more reinvention. Enter: Dead Elvis.

Way Down, by Elvis Presley (his 17th of twenty-one #1s)

5 weeks, from 28th August – 2nd October 1977

I don’t include the picture above to shock or to mock; more to mourn what he had become. What his management and enablers had allowed him to do to himself. I’ve loved Elvis’s music since I was young, and can find something to enjoy from every stage of his career. And I’m glad he bowed out with a rocker. ‘Way Down’ is pure cabaret razzamatazz, with the jazzy drums and the piano flourishes; but there’s rock ‘n’ roll in there. There’s a hint of disco too, believe it or not, in the churning, didgeridoo-like rhythm.

Ooh, And I can feel it, Feel it, Feel it, FEEL IT! You wonder if Elvis was capable of feeling very much at this point, and he does sound pretty bored (or pretty well sedated) during the verses. But he goes for it in the chorus. Way down where it feels so good, Way down where I hoped it would, Way down where I never could… On the one hand they sound like standard, throwaway, mildly risqué rock ‘n’ roll lyrics. But for a man in Elvis’s condition maybe he knew what he was talking about: he was having to dig very deep to feel anything. Meanwhile the line: The medicine within me, A doctor couldn’t prescribe… sounds like a very knowing reference.

I’ve always liked this one, long before I knew it was his swansong. It’s kid-friendly rock – almost a pantomime of the real thing. Would it have been a #1 smash if Elvis hadn’t died? No way. It was languishing at #42 in the week of his death, before rocketing up the charts when the news broke. Nowadays, people download or stream deceased artists’ biggest hits on hearing of their deaths. Back in 1977, those who wanted to mark The King’s passing had one choice: to go ‘Way Down’.

Sadly, Elvis isn’t actually the true star of his final antemortem release. Step forward J.D. Sumner, who ends the record with perhaps the lowest note ever sung on a chart-topping single. Way… On… Doowwwn… I did wonder if he was the same baritone as featured way back on ‘A Fool Such As I’, but sadly he wasn’t.

While this record did perhaps only hit #1 thanks to Elvis’s death, that shouldn’t suggest he had been absent from the charts. Since his last #1in 1970, Presley had scored fifteen Top 10 hits with a mix of new songs and re-releases. ‘Moody Blue’, the single before this, had reached #6. Perhaps ‘Way Down’ would have done something similar, then, if it hadn’t been for that fateful trip to the bathroom.

And this isn’t the end of the road for Elvis and the number one spot. Far from it. At the time, it gave him his seventeenth chart-topper, tying him with The Beatles. They will stay neck and neck for a good twenty-five years, until an Elvis resurgence in the ‘00s (he has twice as many #1s in that decade as he does in the ‘70s…) But still. We should still mark this occasion. One of, if not the, biggest pop star ever has left the building. Go on, order yourself a Fools’ Gold Loaf (flown in on your own private jet, naturally) and play the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll’s final hit, one last time…

Enjoy every #1 so far, including all 17 of Elvis’s:

369. ‘Oh Boy’, by Mud

I gave Mud’s previous #1, the mopey ‘Lonely This Christmas’ a pretty negative write-up, and I’m afraid this ain’t going to be much more positive…

Oh Boy, by Mud (their 3rd and final #1)

2 weeks, from 27th April – 11th May 1975

Rule number one for writing a post on a cover version: don’t just compare it to the original. (‘Oh Boy’, of course, was a huge 1958 hit for The Crickets, the follow-up to ‘That’ll Be the Day’, one of Buddy Holly’s blueprints in building the foundations of rock ‘n’ roll.) It is a fine rule, most of the time.

But when the original is so seminal, so brilliant… Well, it’s impossible. Especially given how Mud suck all the life out of what was a scorching rock song, and reduce it to a funereal plod. You wait for the tempo to raise, for the band to reveal that they’ve been stringing us along and to crack into life, but nope… It just keeps lumbering along, like a buffalo stuck in a swamp.

I do like the hard rock guitars, I suppose, that give this record a bit of a pulse, and there is a new spoken word bit in the middle, by a very seductive sounding lady. All my life, I’ve been waiting, Tonight there’ll be no hesitation… The way she moans her Oh Boys is very Serge and Jane. On the whole, though, I’m left asking ‘why?’ I’m all for trying something different, putting a new spin on an old song. And who knows, maybe if Mud had gone for a straight cover version I’d have called the attempt sacrilege? It’s just… very lifeless.

By the end, the tempo has slowed even further. It is now a certified funeral chant, the instruments having faded and the band going it alone and a capella. I’ve been saying it for a while now, but glam rock is dying a slow death. Time to stub the cigarette out and be done with it. The frustrating thing is… Mud had way better songs than this that didn’t get to number one. ‘The Cat Crept In’, ‘Dyna-mite’… They even did much better covers than what they’ve attempted here: their take on ‘In the Mood’ is silly fun, while their version of Elvis’s ‘One Night’ is what ‘Lonely This Christmas’ should have sounded like.

A frustrating band, then, Mud. Not in the top league of glam, but a solid promotion contender. If you want to know hear more from their back-catalogue, I’d skip ‘Oh Boy’ and crack on with the songs I listed above. And of course their one, true classic: ‘Tiger Feet’. We can forgive everything when we remember ‘Tiger Feet’… Hilariously, on Spotify, Mud’s back-catalogue has been combined with that of Müd (note the umlaut), a hardcore trance act with songs like ‘Fuck It’s Hot’. At least, I assume they’re not the same band… Who knows what directions they went in when the hits dried up…

Follow along with every number one so far…

362. ‘Lonely This Christmas’, by Mud

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

337. ‘Angel Fingers’, by Wizzard

Back to business. Last time out, thanks to teen idol supreme Donny Osmond, we endured a throwback to the soppy ballads of the 1950s. This time out, we have another trip back to the future. Imagine yourself in an American diner, waitresses in pink polka-dots and beehives, frothy milkshakes and burgers on the menu, a Wurlitzer flashing in the corner just waiting for you to drop a dime in and spin the latest smash-hit platter. And then Roy Wood rolls up, all wild hair and glitter, astride his hog. Yes, this is the fifties, Wizzard-ified.

Angel Fingers, by Wizzard (their 2nd and final #1)

1 week, from 16th – 23rd September 1973

First of all, let’s just appreciate motorcycle effect. It means two of the past three chart-toppers have featured heavy revving. It’s clear that artists were having a lot of fun in the studio, throwing whatever the hell they fancied into the mix. Secondly, isn’t this just the most gorgeous, layered, swaying and swooping, pastiche of late fifties, early sixties pop? With a big, big nod to one man in particular – Phil Spector.

As I was lying in my bedroom fast asleep, Filled with those famous teenage pictures that you keep… The singer, Roy Wood, or the character that Wood happens to be assuming for the next four and a half minutes, is a rock ‘n’ roll singer who loves a girl. But she is distracted by teen idol after teen idol (to give this hit its full title: ‘Angel Fingers (A Teen Ballad)’. Will Dion still be so important to you on your wedding day…?

He plans to ride over the café, on his bike, to prove his love. Maybe pick up a guitar and join a rockin’ band. Finally make it big, or maybe just get her to notice him. As with Wizzard’s first #1 – ‘See My Baby Jive’ – the lyrics aren’t really what you’re here for. You want the whole package, the melodies, the fevered imaginings of Roy Wood’s brain condensed into pop perfection. How it lingers, Angel fingers, That’s why I fell in love, With you…

Actually, to call this a mere ‘pastiche’ is unfair. This hangs together as a brilliant song in its own right. Just because it tips its hat to what went before doesn’t detract. It also sounds completely original. ‘Angel Fingers’ gets a bit lost and forgotten, I think, coming between ‘See My Baby Jive’ and Wizzard’s huge Christmas smash. And that’s not fair. I think it might hold together even better than SMBJ – the sensory overload is still there, all the saxophones and drum tracks and French horns cascading over one another, fighting for air time – but it always pulls back before it gets too much.

My two favourite bits are the piano flourishes that start and finish the solo, that I call the ‘Red Dwarf’ bit, for reasons that will be obvious to anyone who has ever watched the show. And then there’s the layered, doo-wop, Beach Boys ending that fades into those French horns, again. Oh baby, it’s perfect. It’s glam, it’s rock ‘n’ roll, it’s doo-wop, it’s Spector, it’s teeny-bopper pop… It’s the entire history of the UK singles chart thus far, in four and a half minutes.

Wizzard only released eight singles before calling it a day in 1975. Two of them reached number one, another was one of the best Christmas songs ever recorded. By that point, Roy Wood had been a member of three hugely influential bands: The Move, Electric Light Orchestra, and the Wizz. Following the split, he went solo, working on projects with bands ranging from Doctor and the Medics, to the Wombles, along with whatever guise he was recording under himself. He produced for many other artists, and tried, unsuccessfully, to have Elvis record one of his songs. He was, is, a genius, and one of those who makes sure this trawl through every #1 single, past every terrible Donny, Dawn or Dana record, remains so much fun.

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

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

0ba342e82e864d007e7e89610152248d

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

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

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

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

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

71wOD2SwYUL._SL1024_

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

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

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

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

276. ‘Bad Moon Rising’, by Creedence Clearwater Revival

Yee-hah! Break out the moonshine, we’re off down the Bayou for a rowdy rock ‘n’ roll shindig with CCR!

CCR_Evening-Standard_Hulton-Archive_Getty1

Bad Moon Rising, by Creedence Clearwater Revival (their 1st and only #1)

3 weeks, from 14th September – 5th October 1969

I love me some Creedence. And I love that they are the unlikely owners of a UK #1 single. Perhaps the most American band ever; that didn’t hold them back from hitting it big on the other side of the Atlantic. And while it does feel a bit odd that CCR was able to top the charts here; it does make sense that they’d do so with what’s probably their catchiest single.

Catchy, but also terrifying. Zager and Evans kicked us off down an apocalyptic path with our last #1, ‘In the Year 2525’, and John Fogerty and co. keep it up here. I see a bad moon rising, I see trouble on the way, I see earthquakes and lightning, I see bad time today… Something terrible is on its way… Rivers are overflowing, hurricanes are a-blowing. This song has possibly the biggest contrast between melody and lyrics of any chart-topping single. The tune: rough and ready rockabilly. The lyrics: Don’t go round tonight, It’s bound to take your life… There’s a bad moon on the rise…

It’s a short and sweet record, one that breezes in and out in just over two minutes. Apparently it was inspired by a scene involving a hurricane in an old movie, but Fogerty also claims to have written it on the day that Richard Nixon was elected president. For a decade that has been so swinging, so iconic, we’re heading for a sour and cynical finish. Maybe we have to look beyond the charts for the answer here –this is a product of a world where a whole generation of Americans were dying in Vietnam, men were landing on the moon, and Kennedys were getting shot…

R-14237895-1570471606-1206.jpeg

By the final verse, things are getting very intense. Hope you’ve got your things together, Hope you are quite prepared to die… It’s all a bit much, and then we crash to an end. We open our eyes and breathe a sigh of relief that we’re all still here. The end hasn’t arrived, yet… Over and out from Creedence Clearwater Revival. Sadly this is their only #1 single, though we should just be glad that they managed even one. In their home country, they had far more hit singles – ‘Proud Mary, ‘Green River’, ‘Travellin’ Band’, ‘Lookin’ Out My Back Door’ and this record all hit #2 in 1969 / 70. Yet a Billboard #1 eluded them…

I love this track, in all its swamp rocking, apocalyptic glory. But, if you do find it all a bit much, a bit depressing, you can just do what John Fogerty does occasionally in concert: change the words of the chorus to There’s a bathroom on the right…

If the world were ending, you could do a lot worse than soundtracking it with this playlist:

274. ‘Honky Tonk Women’, by The Rolling Stones

A few weeks after bidding The Beatles farewell, we’ve now reached the end of The Rolling Stones’ chart-topping career.

rollingstoneshydeparkextra1969a-5

Honky Tonk Women, by The Rolling Stones (their 8th and final #1)

5 weeks, from 23rd July – 24th August 1969

But, while The Fab Four bowed out with a not-very-Beatles-sounding #1, The Stones wrap things up by doing what they do best – some low-down, dirty rhythm and blues. It starts with a cow-bell, Charlie’s drums, some filthy guitar licks, and Mick’s drawl: I met a gin-soaked bar-room queen in Memphis… (was there ever a more Stonesy opening line than that?) She tried to take me upstairs for a ride…

In my post on their last #1, I wrote that ‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash’ was a new leaf for The Stones, in that they gave up on their attempts at flower-power and psychedelica, and returned to straight-up rock ‘n’ roll. ‘Honky Tonk Women’, then, is a consolidation of that. It sets the template for the next fifty years of the band, through the twin glories of ‘Sticky Fingers’ and ‘Exile on Main St’, through to them becoming the biggest stadium fillers the world has ever seen.

It’s also, basically, Mick Jagger listing women that he’s shagged. The bar-room queen is followed by a divorcee in New York City, and the outrageous She blew my nose and then she blew my mind… line. Goodness. It’s the ho-o-o-onky tonk women, Gimme, gimme, gimme the honky tonk blues… It’s always easy to forget that Mick and Keith were from Dartford, Kent and not Tennessee or Alabama, such is the Americana that fills some of their biggest hits.

There is an elephant in the room, though. This is the first Stones’ single not to feature founding member Brian Jones, whose slow and acrimonious departure from the band had been confirmed earlier in the year. He was found dead in his swimming pool just three weeks before ‘Honky Tonk Women’ hit #1. A blues purist; we can but wonder if this song would have sounded different with him playing on it.

R-387942-1492417780-3326.jpeg

Who knows? As it stands we get a sax solo, and a punch the air Woooo! at the very end. It must have been a fun song to write, to record, and to perform every night for the past half-century. I love it. A pure, unadulterated blast of rock ‘n’ roll. You can hear the seventies hits-to-come buried in it – the likes of ‘Brown Sugar’, ‘Tumbling Dice’, ‘It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll’ and the like, right through to ‘Start Me Up’. Unfortunately, none of those records will reach top spot in the UK. The Rolling Stones bow out on eight.

Impressively, their final chart-topper gave them their longest run at number one. Quite unusual, that. Though the particularly eagle-eyed among you will notice that 23rd July to 24th August isn’t quite the five-weeks advertised. This is due to the chart publication dates, and collation methods, changing in the midst of ‘Honky Tonk Women’s’ run.

Farewell to The Rolling Stones, then. Without them and The Beatles around to hit #1 every few weeks it leaves a lot of room for some new guys to come along and dominate. The Stones would slowly fade into obscurity as their chart-topping days receded into the distance… Only joking! They remain a going concern – give or take a few changes in line-up – well into their seventies, while Keith Richards’ continued existence remains one of life’s great mysteries… Their most recent album ‘Blue and Lonesome’, even hit #1 in the UK in 2016.

I’ll maybe do a Stones Top 10 soon, covering all their UK singles, but just for fun here’s my ranking of their eight British chart-toppers – based completely on personal preference – from ‘worst’ to best. *Clears throat*:

‘Little Red Rooster’ > ‘It’s All Over Now’ > ‘The Last Time’ > ‘Paint It, Black’ > ‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash’‘Honky Tonk Women’ > ‘Get Off Of My Cloud’ > ‘(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction’

Let me know if you agree, or not.

Listen to every number one, including all eight from The Stones, here:

272. ‘The Ballad of John and Yoko’, by The Beatles

Well then. For one last time, for the 17th time in just over six years, for the 67th, 68th and 69th weeks in total… The Beatles top the UK singles chart.

Beatles1969_5_18

The Ballad of John and Yoko, by The Beatles (their 17th and final #1)

3 weeks, from 11th June – 2nd July 1969

Coming so hot on the heels of ‘Get Back’ – only 1 week of Tommy Roe splits them – ‘The Ballad of John and Yoko’ sounds like an off-cut from the same recording session. It’s a bit rough and ready, there are the same squiggly guitars that we heard on ‘Get Back’, the same country-rock feel… Famously it features only John and Paul, no George or Ringo. I know it didn’t happen like this, but I do like to imagine the pair – the most famous song writing partners in British rock history – waiting behind after all the others had gone home for the day, putting their ever-growing differences aside and recording one last smash hit in a semi-lit studio.

As the title suggests, this is the story of John and his new wife Yoko, and the story of their marriage. They tried to get married in Paris, managed to do it in Gibraltar, and honeymooned in Amsterdam, in the face of some stiff opposition. All told over a simple riff, with Lennon’s vocals growing ever angrier as the verses rattle on.

I get about half the references… Drove from Paris to the Amsterdam Hilton, Talkin’ in our beds for a week… = the pair’s ‘Bed-In’ against the Vietnam War. The newspapers said, She’s gone to his head, They look just like two gurus in drag… = Lennon’s feelings of victimisation around his divorce and his new, foreign wife. The way things are goin’, They’re gonna crucify me… A cheeky reference to Lennon’s remarks from a few years earlier, about The Beatles being bigger than Jesus.

Other references are more obscure. The trip to Vienna, eating chocolate cake in a bag is a reference to their ‘bagism’ phase, where they wore bags over their heads in a statement against racial prejudice (everyone looks the same in a bag, right?) The fifty acorns tied in a sack? That took some digging, but is apparently about a pair of acorn trees that John and Yoko planted in the grounds of Coventry Cathedral.

And then there’s the blasphemy. The Christ! that kicks off every chorus – I always enjoyed shouting it out in the car as a kid – with the final one being particularly venomous. Perhaps predictably, this caused a big kerfuffle in the States, with several radio stations at best bleeping the word out or, at worst, refusing to play the record at all. The BBC avoided it, too. 1969 is truly becoming the year in which swearing makes it to the top of the charts, after Peter Sarstedt’s ‘damn’ in ‘Where Do You Go To…’ Meanwhile, in Spain, ‘The Ballad of John and Yoko’ caused controversy not because of the Christ!s but because of the references to Gibraltar being ‘near’ Spain. As far as Franco was concerned, Gibraltar was very much part of Spain, muchas gracias

8c115fcdcc97d80a379331da5a7e557f

Is it slightly disappointing that this song is the final Beatle’s record we get to hear in this countdown? Before writing, I would have said yes; but the more I listen and the more I find out about this record, I’m not so sure. It’s John at his spikiest, it’s Lennon and McCartney reunited, it’s quite funny in places… Sure it doesn’t sound much like The Beatles, but what Beatles #1 since 1966 has? Plus, the riff that closes out ‘The Ballad of John and Yoko’, the final notes of their final number one, is lifted from an old rock ‘n’ roll number, ‘Lonesome Tears in My Eyes’, by Johnny Burnette, which The Beatles, or The Quarrymen, used to play way back in the early days. Which is lovely.

I was going to rank all The Beatles 17 #1s in order of preference, but to be honest I can’t face it. I’d need a spare half-day to decide… Of course, this isn’t their final hit single. ‘Come Together’, ‘Something’, ‘Let It Be’ and ‘The Long and Winding Road’ are all still to come. Abbey Road hasn’t been released yet. But, the limitations of this blog are clear: if it doesn’t get to #1 then it doesn’t get a look-in.

And, of course, John, Paul and George will pop up many, many more times in this countdown as solo stars, as part of new bands, in re-releases and in amongst charity singles, well into the 2000s. There is only one man we need to bid farewell to here, then. Ringo. He will go on to achieve great things without bothering over the trifling business of topping the pop charts; namely narrating ‘Thomas the Tank Engine’, and becoming the most influential voice of my pre-school days… (apologies to my parents.)

247. ‘Lady Madonna’, by The Beatles

Ah, the Beatles. Bringing some sense and stability to the top of the UK singles charts, after a few months of wackiness. But actually, even this, a famous hit record from the most famous band in the world, stands out. It’s nowhere as weird as we’ve heard this year, but it’s still different…

original

Lady Madonna, by The Beatles (their 14th of seventeen #1s)

2 weeks, from 27th March – 10th April 1968

For a start, ‘Lady Madonna’ is a piano driven song, which is pretty rare for a Beatles’ single. It’s well-known as a tribute to Fats Domino, which means it’s already the second 1968 #1 to reference the famous pianist, after Georgie Fame’s ‘Ballad of Bonnie and Clyde’. Fats scored his biggest hit for a while by releasing his own version later in the year. Incidentally, I just discovered that he only ever had one (!) UK Top 10, which for a founding pillar of rock ‘n’ roll seems scandalous…

Anyway, as good as the piano riff is here, I love it when McCartney’s bass kicks, and even better when the main guitar kicks in for the second verse, growling like a pit-bull. And then comes the saxophone, another instrument that The Fab Four didn’t often use. It’s a song with a swagger and a swing to it. Anyone attempting it at karaoke would have to finish their performance with a mic toss.

In the back of my mind, I know what the song’s about. I’ve read, somewhere and sometime, just who Lady Madonna was. But before I Google and confirm, here’s my interpretation after listening to it for the first time in ages. She’s poor (Wonder how you manage to make ends meet…) with kids (Baby at your breast…), lots of kids (Wonders how you manage to feed the rest…). She’d like to escape (Lady Madonna, Lying on the bed, Listen to the music playing in your head…) but is trapped in a life of drudgery (Thursday night your stockings needed mending…)

f.jwwb.nl_public_m_a_s_temp-hvwbspxqkwxrxgiraevm_xsbo1v_lady1

It’s a kind of ‘Eleanor Rigby’ part II, and again Lennon and McCartney – though by this point they were largely writing separately, this being a Paul composition – prove themselves able to go way beyond the regular confines of pop music. ‘Madonna’ gives the woman in the song saintly connotations and – yes, I remembered correctly! – McCartney was inspired to write the song by a picture of a breastfeeding tribeswoman in a copy of National Geographic. The music here might be back-to-basics rock ‘n’ roll, but the lyrics are some of The Beatles most cutting. See how they run… What’s ‘running’? The kids? The years? The people that see this poor mother in the street…?

On a far more frivolous note, the use of ‘Madonna’ in the title also opens up a fascinating sub-genre: #1 hits that reference other chart-topping artists! Obviously, they weren’t referencing Madonna Ciccone, who was a good fifteen years away from releasing anything, but still… To be honest, I’m struggling to think of others… ‘Moves Like Jagger’ never quite made it to the top. ‘Rock Me Amadeus’, maybe, as had the charts been around in the 1700s Mozart would have done alright… In ‘Return of the Mack’ Mark Morrison was singing about himself… Let me know if you can think of any other. It’s fascinating, but completely pointless. Anyway.

Anyway, anyway, anyway… All of a sudden, we are approaching the end of The Beatles’ chart-topping careers. This was their fourteenth #1, and there are only three more to go! Luckily, two of them are stone-cold classics. The other is, well… We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.

179. ‘Oh, Pretty Woman’ by Roy Orbison

In comes an intro that isn’t messing around… Sturdy, confident drums… Then Dun-dun-dun-dun-dun… An intro that builds – a layer added with every repetition – until it morphs into a chain-link of a riff.

0002611_oh-pretty-woman-roy-orbison-bill-dees-recorded-by-roy-orbison_550

Oh, Pretty Woman, by Roy Orbison (his 3rd and final #1)

2 weeks, from 8th – 22nd October / 1 week, from 12th – 19th November 1964 (3 weeks total)

And then in comes that voice. The Big O. Reigning it in a little compared to his last, full on operetta of a #1 single, ‘It’s Over’Pretty woman, Walkin’ down the street, Pretty woman, The kind I’d like to meet…  Now, let’s pause for just a second. That ‘I’d’ right there, twenty seconds in, makes or breaks this song. ‘I’d like to meet…’ suggests that he’s been a little unlucky in love. Make it ‘I like to meet…’ as some sources do claim, and the singer suddenly becomes a player, a predator, and the song a little icky. I’m going to trust that it’s an ‘I’d’…

Anyway. Roy’s just hanging out, chilling, watching the girls go by. Pretty woman… I don’t believe you, You’re not the truth, No-one could look as good as you… And then a spoken Mercy! that is truly sublime. Pretty woman, Won’t you pardon me, Pretty woman, I couldn’t help but see… That you look lovely as can be, Are you lonely, Just like me…? He may be ogling and approaching passers-by, but he’s a perfect gentleman about it. Plus, he’s lonely. There’s a tenderness to this song that lifts it above other stalker-anthems like ‘I’m Walking Behind You’ and ‘Every Breath You Take.’

Then, though, Roy does something that even he probably can’t get away with. The grrrrrooooowwwwllllll. Let’s pretend the growl never happens, OK? We get to the bridge – a real fifties rock ‘n’ roll throwback – that seals this record’s place among the greats. Pretty woman, Stop a while, Pretty woman, Talk a while… while the drums roll, and a piano tinkles.

As with ‘It’s Over’, ‘Oh, Pretty Woman’ stands out against the musical landscape of 1964. It could have been a hit five years earlier, or ten years later. I’m not sure you could say the same of ‘Do Wah Diddy Diddy’. The Roy Orbison renaissance (the Roynaissance, if I may) of ’64 is probably the most pleasant surprise in a spectacular year of pop music. Though to be honest, he hadn’t been anywhere, and had been scoring big hits throughout the early sixties. It’s just that none of them had made it to the top of the charts.

s-l300 (3)

We get to the climax of the song, and an already brilliant song is elevated even further. The rules of pop music never applied to Roy Orbison, and he bends them to great effect here. He serves us a cliff-hanger, similar to the one he dishes up at the end of ‘Running Scared’. The woman doesn’t stop, and he’s left disappointed. He slows it down, in his trademark talking-singing-freestyling style: Don’t walk away, Hey…. OK… If that’s the way it must be, OK… Then another moment of perfection – But, wait… Cut to the same drumbeat that opened the song. What’s that I see…? She’s turned around. She’s coming back! Of course she’s coming back. Was there a woman alive who could resist the Orbison charm?

I, as I’m sure you’ve realised, love this record. It’s a Rolling Stone Top 500, Rock n Roll Hall of Fame kind of record. A song that nobody can say a bad word about. I love Roy Orbison too, and still remember getting his greatest hits as a Christmas present back as a kid. Perhaps with the exception of Elvis, no other star of the fifties and sixties had an identifiable image like Roy Orbison. Dark suit, dark glasses, guitar, quiff. It’s up there with Michael Jackson’s hat and glove, and Madonna’s pointy bra. You may think it’s superficial; but it’s a hallmark of the very best pop stars.

Following this, Orbison suffered some pretty lean years in terms of chart hits, and some unimaginable tragedies: he lost his wife and his two eldest sons in the space of two years. But, as with all the greats he came back – The Travelling Wilburys, ‘You Got It’ and all that. And then, just as his comeback was picking up speed, and in a twist befitting one of his greatest ballads, he had a heart-attack and died, in 1988, aged just fifty-two. He’s a legend – plain and simple. The songs that defied convention, the operatic voice, and the dark glasses. The Big O.