Recap number… let me check… eight! We are exactly fifteen years, and two hundred and forty #1 hits, into the UK Singles Chart. It bears repeating every so often, but to listen back to the very first chart-toppers – the likes of ‘Here in My Heart’, ‘She Wears Red Feathers’ and ‘Answer Me’ – is to take a step back in time that feels much deeper than fifteen years.
Especially after this recap, because we have just passed through possibly the most diverse, fertile, wonderful couple of years in popular music history. 1963-65 brought some brilliant songs together at the top of the charts, but they were mostly in the same Beat-pop vein. Recently, we’ve had runs in which experimental psychedelic rock has sat shoulder to shoulder with schmaltzy easy-listening, in which the grittiest soul has been followed by cute country ballads. It’s also been a year or two of blockbuster hits, some big long stretches at number one – five weeks here, six weeks there, seven even, for Tom Jones.
These are thirty chart-toppers that I think we’ll have to split into two. The first half – 1966 – contains some of the finest pop songs ever recorded. Choosing the very best one out of a list that includes ‘The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore’, ‘Eleanor Rigby’, ‘Good Vibrations’, among others, ain’t gonna be easy…
Which is why it might be easier to start with the worst. 1967 saw a big shift away from experimental sounds and, for the most part, easy-listening ruled. Suddenly we were back in the pre-rock days. Engelbert, Jim Reeves, Petula Clark and Sir Tom all crooned for their supper over a six month period. But the only one of those songs that I truly disliked – and the winner of this recap’s Very Worst Chart-Topper Award, is Mr. Humperdinck, he of the luxurious sideburns and pillowed lips, with the dreary ‘Release Me’, which must have had people crying out to be released from its six week run at the top. He did redeem himself, I think, with his second #1, ‘The Last Waltz’, which stayed on the right side of cheesy.
That was an easy award. And so it is with this recap’s ‘Meh’ Award, for the hit that was simply dull, rather than terrible. I considered giving it to Jim Reeves, for ‘Distant Drums’, but he was just doing what he did best, and he was dead… So I’m going to give it to The Tremeloes, for their cover of ‘Silence is Golden’. Not awful, but far from their best effort. They were capable of much more.
19th November 1968: International pop singer and cabaret star Engelbert Humperdinck on stage at the Royal Variety Performance. (Photo by Larry Ellis/Express/Getty Images)
Why was it, do we think, that things went ever so slightly bland in 1967? Was it a backlash to all the experimentation? A return to what felt safe and comfortable, and not at all scary? Or was it that everyone had given their gran and their maiden aunt an HMV voucher for Christmas? It really is strange, and it makes the Summer of Love, in which ‘normal’ service was restored by Procol Harum, The Beatles and Scott McKenzie, stand out like a sore-thumb. Our more recent #1s suggest that the blip might be over, though – The Foundations and Long John Baldry bringing a bit more grit and streetwise savvy to the number one spot.
So strong are some of the recent chart-topping records that, looking back, you might completely miss some hugely significant hits. Frank Sinatra had a comeback! And duetted with his daughter! Dusty Springfield scored her one and only number one single! The Monkees invented the boy band, while strong, eight-out-of-ten pop songs like ‘Pretty Flamingo’ and ‘With a Girl Like You’, pass by almost un-noted. In previous updates ‘All or Nothing’ by The Small Faces might have been the main story, or might even have been getting the awards… Not this time. We also met The Bee Gees for the first time! And then there was ‘Paint It, Black’. Yep, I almost forgot about one of The Stones’ biggest hits. Admittedly it has never been one of my favourite Stones’ songs, but in terms of its sound and lyrical content it is hugely significant. I thought about giving it my ‘WTAF’ Award, the gong for the more ‘interesting’ chart toppers around, but I already gave them that award last time out, and if I gave them it twice in a row I’d be in danger of painting them as some kind of novelty… So, if it’s not ‘Paint It, Black’ then there’s only one other candidate… Not ‘All You Need Is Love’, because that makes sense in context. Step forward, Sandie Shaw with ‘Puppet on a String’ – a loopy record that makes no sense in any context. (Apart from the Eurovision Song Contest context, but shhh…)
On, then, to the very best that the charts of 1966-67 had to offer. This is a hell of a decision. I have to disregard classics like ‘Sunny Afternoon’, ‘Out of Time’ and ‘Reach Out I’ll Be There’ because they just weren’t quite brilliant enough. As usual, I’ve whittled it down to four. The three I mentioned earlier: The Walker Brothers’ ‘The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore’, The Beatles’ ‘Eleanor Rigby’, The Beach Boy’s ‘Good Vibrations’ plus Procol Harum’s ‘A Whiter Shade of Pale’. All worthy winners in any other recap…
In 4th place – The Walker Brothers. A superb pop record, but not a game-changer like the others. In 3rd place… ‘Eleanor Rigby’. (Gasps from the back row!) A pop song that sounds nothing like a pop song. A heart-breaking story of loss and ageing that takes barely two minutes to tell, accompanied by nothing but strings. But… it was a double-‘A’ side, and if I name ‘Eleanor Rigby’ as the very best #1 then I am also naming ‘Yellow Submarine’ as the very best #1, and that’s not something that I’m prepared to do. In 2nd place… ‘Good Vibrations’. An amazing work of art, but one that can’t quite escape the fact that it is a work of art. And so, The Very Best Chart-Topper of the past thirty goes to ‘A Whiter Shade of Pale’ – a confident beast of a record that strode in the room, sounding unlike any other, and was extremely proud of it.
To recap the recaps, then:
The ‘Meh’ Award for Forgettability: 1. ‘Hold My Hand’, by Don Cornell. 2. ‘It’s Almost Tomorrow’, by The Dream Weavers. 3. ‘On the Street Where You Live’, by Vic Damone. 4. ‘Why’, by Anthony Newley. 5. ‘The Next Time’ / ‘Bachelor Boy’, by Cliff Richard & The Shadows. 6. ‘Juliet’, by The Four Pennies. 7. ‘The Carnival Is Over’, by The Seekers. 8. ‘Silence Is Golden’, by The Tremeloes.
The ‘WTAF’ Award for Being Interesting if Nothing Else: 1. ‘I See the Moon’, by The Stargazers. 2. ‘Lay Down Your Arms’, by Anne Shelton. 3. ‘Hoots Mon’, by Lord Rockingham’s XI. 4. ‘You’re Driving Me Crazy’, by The Temperance Seven. 5. ‘Nut Rocker’, by B. Bumble & The Stingers. 6. ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’, by Gerry & The Pacemakers. 7. ‘Little Red Rooster’, by The Rolling Stones. 8. ‘Puppet on a String’, by Sandie Shaw.
The Very Worst Chart-Toppers: 1. ‘Cara Mia’, by David Whitfield with Mantovani & His Orchestra. 2. ‘The Man From Laramie’, by Jimmy Young. 3. ‘Roulette’, by Russ Conway. 4. ‘Wooden Heart’, by Elvis Presley. 5. ‘Lovesick Blues’, by Frank Ifield. 6. ‘Diane’, by The Bachelors. 7. ‘The Minute You’re Gone’, by Cliff Richard. 8. ‘Release Me’, by Engelbert Humperdinck.
The Very Best Chart-Toppers: 1. ‘Such a Night’, by Johnnie Ray. 2. ‘Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White’, by Perez ‘Prez’ Prado & His Orchestra. 3. ‘Great Balls of Fire’, by Jerry Lee Lewis. 4. ‘Cathy’s Clown’, by The Everly Brothers. 5. ‘Telstar’, by The Tornadoes. 6. ‘She Loves You’ by The Beatles. 7. ‘(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction’, by The Rolling Stones. 8. ‘A Whiter Shade of Pale’, by Procol Harum.
It’s very telling that the four award winning songs came practically one after the other in the spring/summer of 1967. That’s how varied and eclectic the charts have been recently – weird followed by boring followed by brilliant. And that is really how the charts should be: anything can top them and anything should top them… Long may it continue!