357. ‘Annie’s Song’, by John Denver

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

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

1 week, from 6th – 13th October 1974

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Follow my #1s playlist on Spotify:

314. ‘Vincent’, by Don McLean

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

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

2 weeks, from 11th – 25th June 1972

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

305. ‘Maggie May’ / ‘Reason to Believe’, by Rod Stewart

And so we welcome to the stage a true rock icon, a man who sells albums and fills stadiums to this day. Sir Rod Stewart. (I’m assuming he’s a ‘Sir’. Sort it out, Queenie, if he isn’t.)

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Maggie May / Reason to Believe, by Rod Stewart (his 1st of six #1s)

5 weeks, from 3rd October – 7th November 1971

This was his very first solo single release to make the charts. Straight to the top with a bullet, with what is his most famous song? I don’t think I’ve ever heard the ‘single’ version of ‘Maggie May’, which is a full two minutes shorter than the extended version I grew up with. It’s the same intro, albeit condensed, a confident acoustic riff, then two emphatic drumbeats announcing that the story is ready to begin. Wake up Maggie, I think I got something to say to you…

Young Rod has been seduced by an older woman, spent a summer with her, and is now starting to wake up to the harsh realities of their relationship. It’s late September and I really should be back at school… ‘Maggie May’ is famously based on Stewart’s encounter with a real woman, at a Jazz festival when he was sixteen. Getting away from the slightly predatory story – imagine if the genders were reversed – the lyrics capture perfectly the voice of a callous teen, coupled with some corny rhymes: I laughed at all your jokes, My love you didn’t need to coax… And then the classic: The morning sun when it’s in your face really shows your age… Harsh!

He loves her, but wishes he’d never seen her face. We’ve all been there. Young Rod sounds like a bit of a tearaway – his options post-Maggie are either becoming a roadie or making a living out of playing pool… I’m sure he’ll be fine, and get over the heartbreak. Anyway, the whole song is basically him rehearsing what he’s going to say to Maggie. He hasn’t broke it off just yet! It hinges on the opening and closing lines: I think I’ve got something to say to you… and I’ll get on back home, One of these days…

Unfortunately, the single version cuts the best verse, the one with the: You turned into a lover and mother what a lover you wore me out! line. Maybe that would have been too ripe for daytime radio. Then comes the solo, and the mandolin outro, one of the Celtic-sounding elements that often pop up in Rod Stewart’s music. It’s an undeniable classic, one that – cliched but true – still sounds fresh today. One that no amount of terrible pub karaoke versions can ruin. And while the woman may have been real, her name wasn’t ‘Maggie May’ – she was a famous Liverpudlian prostitute. I’m sure the actual ‘Maggie’ was delighted by the comparison…

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It’s been a long old while since we had a double-‘A’ hit the top of the charts – not since Louis Armstrong in 1968. On the flip we have Rod’s cover of ‘Reason to Believe’, a song I’m certain I’ve never heard before. It opens with a lonesome piano, before the vocals come in. Both these songs are very much focused on Stewart’s voice. Which is fair enough, as he does have one of the best.

If I listen, Long enough, To you… I’d find a way, To believe, That it’s all true… In ‘Maggie May’, he was trying to convince himself to leave someone. In this song, he’s trying to talk himself into staying, despite knowing that his lover lied: straight faced, while I cried… He needs a reason to believe in her. The two songs work well together, both in terms of the sound and the lyrical theme.

A fiddle gives this record the country feel that the mandolin gave ‘Maggie May’. Then midway through, we’re left with just the voice. Someone like you, Makes it hard to live, Without, Somebody else… It’s a nice song, that slowly grows on the listener; but it’s no ‘Maggie May’. Technically, ‘Reason to Believe’ was the song first pushed to radio when the disc was released, but the song on the other side quickly won through. Maybe it was because The Carpenters had released a version of the song the year before – a classic Carpentersy-country version – while the folky original had been recorded in 1965, by Tim Hardin, that the label thought ‘Reason…’ might have caught people’s attention quicker.

For, while this was Rod Stewart’s first charting single, it wasn’t his first attempt at a solo career. He’d been releasing singles since 1964, and had spent the sixties busking, playing session gigs and jumping between bands. Then came The Jeff Beck Group, in which he met Ronnie Wood, and then The Faces (basically The Small Faces minus lead singer Steve Marriott), with whom he was having hits alongside his solo work in the early seventies. After this huge five-week #1 smash there will be no looking back for Rod – he’ll go on to become one of the decades’ biggest stars, on either side of the Atlantic, and we’ll be meeting him plenty more times in the months to come.

292. ‘Woodstock’, by Matthews Southern Comfort

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

259. ‘Those Were the Days’, by Mary Hopkin

From the longest number one yet… To the second longest. Five minutes plus! Picture yourself in a tavern in Leningrad, back when it still was Leningrad. Big furry hats, sturdy men, even sturdier women…

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Those Were the Days, by Mary Hopkin (her 1st and only #1)

6 weeks, from 25th September – 6th November 1968

It reminds me of Petula Clark’s ‘This Is My Song’, an old-fashioned ballad with a sweeping intro. Instruments that I couldn’t begin to name jingle-jangle before the violins come in… Once upon a time there was a tavern, Where we used to raise a glass or two… It’s a song of longing and regret. The singer is reminiscing about happier times, dancing and singing down the pub. Those were the days, my friend, We thought they’d never end… If ‘bittersweet’ was a sound, then that sound would sound a lot like ‘Those Were the Days.’

I wasn’t just making up all that stuff about Leningrad – this really is based on an old Russian folk-tune. A Georgian folk-tune, actually, which had been around since the turn of the century. And you really can picture some Cossacks high-kicking in time to the steady beat, especially when we get to the dadadadas. That’s another thing that this record has in common with its predecessor ‘Hey Jude’: a chanted refrain. Except this one doesn’t drag on for four and a half minutes…

By the third verse, time has moved on. The singer stands outside the same tavern: In the glass I saw strange reflections, Was that lonely woman really me…? In the fourth verse she timidly enters the bar… Oh my friend we’re older but no wiser, For in our hearts the dreams are still the same… Do they get back together? Have one last fling for old time’s sake? Or do they just leave it at a smile? I guess we’ll never know…

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As a melody, it’s pretty irresistible, coming as it does from a time before ‘pop music’ existed. It sounds nostalgic, like you’ve heard it before, somewhere, sometime… It feels as if it should be from a musical. It was also produced by one Paul McCartney, who may have popped up once or twice already on this countdown. He’d known the tune for years, and finally chanced upon Mary Hopkin as a singer. She was barely eighteen, and looks every bit the sixties flower-power girl. Long hair, bare feet, that kind of thing. ‘Those Were the Days’ was her first, and by far her biggest hit. She would go on to have four more Top 10 singles in the next couple of years, and still records to this day.

In one way, this song stands out as odd. It’s sentimental, old-fashioned, a bit cheesy… But in another way it is very late sixties: there are folk-rock touches (the ‘B’-side was even a cover of The Byrds’ ‘Turn! Turn! Turn!’) and some very Beatlesy flourishes (the horns that come in midway through, for example). Plus, this is 1968, and anything goes at the top of the charts this year. There have been some weird chart-toppers, and some weird ones are still to come…

244. ‘Mighty Quinn’, by Manfred Mann

Our next #1 single starts with what sound suspiciously like pan-pipes. I leave that there as a word of warning. (It’s not actually pan-pipes, it’s a flute, but the tone has been set….)

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Mighty Quinn, by Manfred Mann (their 3rd and final #1)

2 weeks, from 14th – 28th February 1968

Come on without, Come on within, You’ll not see nothing like the Mighty Quinn… It’s a swaying chorus that greets us as the song proper gets underway. A chorus that I knew, without ever really having listened to the song in full. A chorus that begs a question – just who is the Mighty Quinn?

He is, naturally, an Eskimo. What else? To give the song its’ full title – ‘Quinn the Eskimo.’ And when Quinn the Eskimo gets here, Everybody’s gonna jump with joy… And why will Quinn’s arrival be greeted with such jubilation? To be honest, I’m now on listen number three and I’m still not sure.

The verses have a verve and swagger to them, that really really reminds of something else that I just can’t quite put my finger on. It’s very frustrating. Anyway… Everybody’s building ships and boats, Some are building monuments, Others are jotting down notes… It seems like a comment on modernity, and the fact that something is missing from modern life. Nobody can get no sleep, There’s someone on everyone’s toes, But when Quinn the Eskimo gets here, Everybody’s gonna want a dose… Or is it ‘a doze’, as in a nap? Either way, this is pretty abstract stuff.

Boiled down, it seems like Quinn is some kind of Messiah figure, who’s going to calm everyone down and chill everyone out (as well as gathering all the pigeons around him…) Bob Dylan – for yes, ‘tis he who wrote this – has claimed that the song is nothing more than a nursery rhyme. But that’s what the writers of strange and obscure lyrics always say, isn’t it? His version is much more folky and laid-back, and wouldn’t be released until several years after Manfred Mann’s.

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I’m not sure what to make of this one. On the one hand it is interesting. There can’t have been many #1 singles about Eskimos. On the other it just doesn’t quite work for me. It’s Dylan’s 2nd chart-topper as a songwriter and it is certainly not anywhere near the level of his previous one, ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’.

And what of Manfred Mann? They sign off on their chart-topping account, having hit the top spot with three very different records. The Beat-pop swing of ‘Do Wah Diddy Diddy’, the sweet ‘Pretty Flamingo’ and now this. A #1 in ’64, ’66 and now ’68. A band for even-numbered years. A 2nd-tier, perhaps slightly underrated sixties band? They were soon to become Manfred Mann’s Earth Band, and to go pretty heavy on the prog-rock. They’ve kept ‘The Mighty Quinn’ as part of their concerts, and apparently live versions can go on for a good ten minutes… I’m not sure if that sounds brilliant, or terrifying…

To be honest, my first exposure to this record was probably miles away from Manfred Mann and the 1960s pop charts. Irish football fans used to sing a version of this song for their big striker, Niall Quinn. The nickname stuck to such an extent that he even named his autobiography – you guessed it – ‘The Mighty Quinn.’

236. ‘San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Some Flowers in Your Hair)’, by Scott McKenzie

And so we reach the final part of our Summer of Love trilogy. Three songs. Thirteen weeks. One summer that (kind of) changed the world. The psychedelic weirdness of Procol Harum, The Beatles going for a full-on hippy love-in, and now this. An ode to the city where it all started.

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San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Some Flowers in Your Hair), by Scott McKenzie (his 1st and only #1)

4 weeks, from 9th August – 6th September 1967

If you’re going, To San Francisco, Be sure to wear, Some flowers in your hair… The music is acoustic: folky and wistful… Very 1965 – already sounding a little old-fashioned in mid-’67. Something’s going ‘ting’. Somebody’s clapping their hands. In the streets, Of San Francisco, Gentle people, With flowers in their hair… (Apparently all the references to ‘flowers’ and ‘gentle people’ were added to make hippies sound less frightening!)

The singer, Scott McKenzie, also sounds as if he’s from another time, a little old-fashioned. Kind of clipped and proper. A bit square, if we’re being honest, like he’s chronicling the scenes in the parks of San Francisco, an observer rather than a partaker. I dunno, I’m left slightly underwhelmed. For the ‘unofficial anthem of the flower-power movement’ I’d have expected something a little more revolutionary…

But, you know, it’s a cute song. I like it. I knew it, as most people do, as a chorus in the back of my mind. And the most interesting bit comes in the middle-eight, when McKenzie breaks the fourth wall and explicitly references the counter-culture movement: All across the nation, Such a strange vibration, People in motion… There’s a whole generation, With a new explanation… The beat here is spikier, more urgent. It sounds almost like a rallying call.

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I’ve been to San Francisco twice. Once as a kid, and once just last summer. When one night, in the heart of downtown, a guy walked past us bellowing this very song out at the top of his lungs. San Fran being San Fran, he wasn’t oddest oddball we’d seen that day, or even that evening. But I liked the fact that the song was still there, still an anthem of the city fifty years on. And there is something about San Francisco, still, even if downtown is full of meth addicts and Haight-Ashbury is now a bit of a tourist trap. Something in the air that suggests that it could start a revolution again, if it wanted to…

I’m still not sure if Scott McKenzie himself was much of a hippy. He had quite long hair, but then everybody did in the sixties… What I do know is that he is a near perfect example of a one-hit wonder: his only other charting single in the UK reached #50. He was something of a journeyman singer-songwriter, even in 1967, having been in doo-wop and folk bands since the start of the decade. Post ‘San Francisco’, he performed with The Mamas and the Papas, and co-wrote The Beach Boys’ eighties hit ‘Kokomo’. He passed away in 2012.

So that’s that for the Summer of Love. Three game-changing #1 singles: one timeless, one crazy, and one pretty nice. Up next, we slip right back into the easy-listening mulch that has made up so much of 1967. But let’s not think about that just yet. Let’s focus instead on the fact that this is only the 3rd chart-topper to reference a city, after Jimmy Young’s ‘The Man From Laramie’ in 1955, and Winifred Atwell’s ‘The Poor People of Paris’ back in 1956. If we extend that to ‘places’, we could include The Song from ‘Moulin Rouge’, and, at a bit of a push, ‘The Garden of Eden’… Worth noting, though, as it’s not a common topic for #1 hits…

My Spotify playlist, for your pleasure:

https://open.spotify.com/playlist/3sSYyPEUCTyMjMlN55z8SX?si=4uQ5-kViRemyOk3mGheGzA

206. ‘The Carnival Is Over’, by The Seekers

Another dose of easy-listening, faux-folk from Australia’s biggest band? (That wasn’t a question – you’re getting it whether you like it or not.)

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The Carnival Is Over, by The Seekers (their 2nd and final #1)

3 weeks, from 25th November – 16th December 1965

I just about managed to see the positive side of The Seekers’ first number one, ‘I’ll Never Find Another You’, for all it’s tweeness. But I think I’ll have to draw the line here… The term ‘dirge’ has cropped up once or twice in recent entries – The Beatles experimented with it in the background on ‘Ticket to Ride’, while ‘I Got You Babe’, for all its cuteness, was propped up with a pretty flat bass rhythm. ‘The Carnival Is Over’, though, is A Dirge, plain and simple.

The beat plods, the backing vocals are lifeless. You can almost picture the coffin being lowered into the ground. You start wishing they’d just get on with it… Say goodbye, My own true lover, As we sing, A lover’s song, How it breaks it my heart to leave you, Now the carnival is gone… Judith Durham, the lead singer, is once again on fine Sunday school teacher round the campfire form. Don’t get me wrong, she sings it very well; but it’s painfully proper.

It’s a song about two lovers, Pierrot and Columbine. Has Columbine fallen in love with a traveller? A handsome stranger who set up camp for a week or two? It’d have to have been a sailing carnival, thanks to the line about ‘harbour lights’… So maybe not. Or is ‘the carnival’ a metaphor for love, a love that’s no longer? Though the carnival is over, I will love you ‘till I die…

This record follows the same formula as The Seekers’ first #1, in that it was written and produced by Tom (brother of Dusty) Springfield. The melody was borrowed from an old Russian folk song, and once you learn that you think ‘Yes!’, this tune would make complete sense when bellowed out by a sturdy serf, gathering hay on the steppe. Not so much as a hit single in 1965. Yes, yes, yes it’s part of the folk-rock movement that’s become huge this year, but it’s a spectacularly lifeless song. You just want to shake them by the shoulders and tell them to liven it up a bit.

Apparently Springfield was inspired to write the lyrics after seeing the Rio carnival. Which seems hard to believe, as this record doesn’t exactly scream samba and piña coladas on the beach. In the bridge, there is an attempt at livening things up, with a nifty Spanish guitar riff. But that’s it. Plus the bridge also has a line about kisses ‘sweet as wine’, which is a metaphor I’ve never understood, what with most wines not being sweet at all. It should be ‘sweet as sherry’ is all I’m saying.

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And so we plod to a close. That’s that for The Seekers at the top of the UK charts. They would have three further Top 10 singles before splitting in 1968. They’ve reformed twice since then, and still perform to this day, minus Durham who retired in 2013. They were huge in their homeland, and were even voted ‘Australians of the Year’. I can see why, too, what with US and UK acts dominating since the dawn of rock ‘n’ roll, it’s always nice to feel a local connection to a successful artist.

One more thing to say about ‘The Carnival Is Over’ – it was a spectacularly high-selling record. Late 1965 seems to have been a high point for record sales as, after Ken Dodd’s ‘Tears’ had become the 3rd best-selling single of the decade, this disc also did well over a million. At last count it was sitting at No. 30 in the best-sellers of all time list. Not bad for a dirge. I’m clearly in the minority…