Recap: #150 – #180

And so we pause…

These latest thirty #1 records represent perhaps the richest vein of pop music ever to have been hit upon in this country. Much of 1961 and ’62 was spent drilling different holes – occasionally coming up with a beauty (The Tornados); largely hitting a lot of bland MOR (Cliff, Frank Ifield.) But one day, in April 1963, the motherlode was discovered. Merseybeat.

This is the Merseybeat recap. The most homogenous sounding bunch of chart-toppers we are ever likely to meet. Young guys with guitars singing perky songs about falling in love, holding hands and getting into something good. It started with a triple whammy – a call to kids across the land – as Gerry & The Pacemakers and The Beatles arrived at the top of the charts. The Searchers, Billy J. Kramer, The Tremeloes and The Dave Clark Five all soon followed. That stretch, from April ’63 through to the summer of ’64 is probably the most consistent sounding year in UK chart history, one beat-pop number followed by another, with few exceptions and very few duds.

It’s definitely the strongest bunch of #1s yet, and it’s been very hard to pick which ones are merely great and which ones are utterly transcendent. Classics like ‘From Me to You’, ‘I Like It’, ‘Glad All Over’, ‘Do Wah Diddy Diddy’, ‘Have I the Right?’ and ‘I’m Into Something Good’ – which might have made the ‘Best Of’ at any other time – will have to just get left by the wayside. Whole chart-topping careers, those of Billy J., The Searchers, The Pacemakers and Cilla Black, have come and gone in a blink of an eye. For so long we plodded through mediocrity; now we wish things could slow down a little.

Of course, nothing that good can last forever, but I was surprised by how quickly the Merseybeat wave came, conquered and then receded. By July 1964, a harder sound had arrived at the top courtesy of The Animals and The Rolling Stones (Yes, we met the Stones for the first time! What should have been a headline becomes a footnote thanks to the brilliance of those around them.) Beat pop has slowly started to fragment in recent months, into full on rock (‘You Really Got Me’), rhythm and blues (‘It’s All Over Now’), experimental electro pop (‘Have I the Right?’) and easy-listening with a hint-of-Beat (‘(There’s) Always Something There to Remind Me’.)

Out of the last thirty-one #1s, I can count only seven outliers. Seven discs that haven’t fit the Beat-pop/rock bill. Cilla’s two proto-power ballads, the best of which was ‘You’re My World’, The Pacemaker’s weird showtune swansong ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’, a couple of leftovers from the previous era in Elvis’s ‘(You’re the) Devil in Disguise’ and Frank Ifield’s final, and most pleasing, #1 ‘Confessin’ (That I Love You)’. And, of course, the return of Roy Orbison. The Roynaissance. ‘Oh, Pretty Woman’ was the sound of him meeting the Beat-revolution halfway; but his earlier comeback #1, the dramatic and operatic ‘It’s Over’, sounded completely out of place, and all the better for it.

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Which leads me to the latest ‘WTAF’ Award, and a truly tough decision. Do I award it to The Big O, for ‘It’s Over’, or to Gerry & The Pacemakers for the bizarre, and perhaps fatal, decision to record a version of ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’? I’m going to edge towards The Pacemakers – ‘It’s Over’ merely sounds out of place thanks to its surroundings; in the career of Roy Orbison it makes complete sense. Whereas I’m not sure anyone saw ‘YNWA’ coming. Still, it probably gets played ten times more these days than ‘I Like It’, and it means Gerry and the lads get a nice windfall any time Liverpool win a big match.

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Choosing a record to crown as both ‘Meh’ and the Very Worst Chart-Topper is also a tough decision. There simply haven’t been enough terrible records to go around. It’s basically a straight shootout between The Bachelors ‘Diane’ and The Four Pennies ‘Juliet’. Two landfill Merseybeat records, cashing in on the day’s signature sound to make bland MOR; two records named after girls. I’ll give the ‘Meh’ Award to ‘Juliet’ and the Very Worst Chart-Topper to ‘Diane’, as The Four Pennies were merely boring, while I feel there was something sinister in The Bachelors perverting Merseybeat into a record for grannies. Like when Pat Boone released his metal-covers record, or when Tom Jones did Prince…

Before we settle what was the best of the best, one thing that did surprise me as I covered the past thirty-one chart-topping discs was that only three of them were recorded by Americans. Roy Orbison, of course, and one Elvis Presley, who you may remember from previous recaps. Back in my first recap, during the pre-rock days, I commented on how few British acts there seemed to be, and how the big US stars of the day – Kay Starr, Perry Como, Eddie Fisher et al – were bringing the glamour to bombed-out, over-rationed Blighty. Well, ten years on and much has changed. The Brits are the cool ones – it was they who were invading the Billboard Hot 100 across the Atlantic. Except, they were doing so with American-written songs. All The Searchers’ #1s were originally recorded by US vocal groups. Cilla and Sandie Shaw hit big with Bacharach and David numbers. ‘Do You Love Me?’ was a Motown number, while ‘I’m Into Something Good’ was written by Goffin and King. An interesting footnote to the British Invasion.

To the crème de la crème, then… The 6th Very Best Chart-Topper award. I’ve narrowed it down to a top five. ‘How Do You Do It?’, by Gerry and the P’s, for kicking this whole shebang off. Then The Animals, for announcing the end of Merseybeat a year later with the deep-throated, bluesy ‘The House of the Rising Sun’. They’re joint fourth. 3rd place goes to ‘You Really Got Me’ – in which the Kinks invented garage rock, power-pop and, oh yes, heavy metal – and generally grabbed us all by the bollocks and kicked us up the arse. Runner-up goes to the sublime ‘Needles and Pins’ by The Searchers – a moment of sad-pop melancholy in amongst the frenzy. I really wish I could argue a case for this being the very best but… I can’t. Not when The Fab Four are looking on.

Yes, five of the past bunch of chart-toppers were by The Beatles, with a further two written and donated to other acts by Lennon & McCartney. All of which were good-to-great #1s. (Sorry to disappoint, but I won’t have too many bad words to say about any of their seventeen chart-toppers.) One though, stands out above the rest. The one hundred and fifty seventh UK chart-topper, and the moment the world realised that they were in on something spectacular: ‘She Loves You’. Yeah, yeah… Yeah!

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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.

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.

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.

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.

The next thirty will take us from the tail-end of 1964 through to early ’66, and I doubt there will be anything like as clear and definable a ‘sound’ to the coming months. Popular music will continue to fragment. Starting with a brand new first at the top of the UK charts. It’s Motown, baby!

159. ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’, by Gerry & The Pacemakers

Gerry and his gang make it three number ones in a year – three in ‘63. A feat that not many acts manage. But this is a disc light-years away from their first two chart-toppers.

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You’ll Never Walk Alone, by Gerry & The Pacemakers (their 3rd and final #1)

4 weeks, from 31st October – 28th November 1963

It starts very simply. When you walk… A voice, a piano, a sparse drumbeat, and a bass… Through a storm, Hold your head up high, And don’t be afraid, Of the dark… Yup, we are definitely a long way from ‘I Like It’.

It’s a motivational song – a ‘never-give-up’ number about holding onto your dreams, even in your darkest hour. And Gerry Marsden certainly sells it here, building in confidence as the song progresses with his slightly rough-round-the-edges scouse crooning, and an affecting tremble in his voice. Walk on, Through the rain, Though your dreams be tossed, And blown…

Then the violins kick in, and the band and George Martin pull out all the stops to make sure there isn’t a spine left untingled. Walk on… Walk on… With hope in your heart, And you’ll never walk alone…. It’s a classic, an anthem. There’s a quick drop following the first chorus and then BOOM – we’re back for a big ol’ finish.

What on earth, though, were Gerry and The Pacemakers doing recording a version of ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ in the first place? It’s such a weird trio of chart-toppers: ‘How Do You Do It?’ – perky Beat-pop, ‘I Like It’ – perky Beat-pop, ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ – umm… It’s from a Rodger’s & Hammerstein musical, ‘Carousel’, first performed in 1945 as their follow-up to ‘Oklahoma!’ In the show, the song is sung by the lead-female character’s sister to comfort her following her death of her husband.

However, in the UK, and much of Europe, ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ has become completely disassociated from the original musical, and even from Gerry & The Pacemakers. Ask your average youngster in the street today if they know the song and they’ll probably say ‘yes – it’s the Liverpool Football Club song.’ It’s a record – more so than any of the other chart-toppers that we’ve covered so far – that has, for better or worse, taken on a completely new role in the decades since its release. At every Liverpool home game, just as the players run out onto the pitch, you’ll hear that piano and Gerry Marsden’s husky tones. Then, just as it arrives at the big finish, the P.A system will cut out and the crowd will take it home.

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Legend has it that in the early sixties the P.A. would play the Top 10 ahead of each match at Anfield. For four weeks in November 1963, ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ was the last song played due to it being atop the charts. But even after it was knocked off the top and dropped out the charts, the crowd kept singing it. The Pacemakers were hometown lads, after all, and the lyrics and melody of the song do lend themselves to being sung en-masse at a football match. So it stuck. ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ is the Liverpool FC song now. It’s sung at every game. It’s carved above the gates at Anfield. Liverpool supporters sign off from message boards and forums with ‘YNWA’.

But… Football being a tribal game, this means that any supporter of a club that isn’t LFC has to, basically, hate this song. Especially those who grew up in the seventies and eighties, when the buggers were winning everything. I would never particularly choose to listen to this song, as I’m not a Liverpool fan. It’s left ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ in a very weird position in British popular culture – a song that everybody knows; but one that only a select portion of the population will actively enjoy. And, amazingly, I’ve only just scratched the surface here. The song will top the charts again, and will become indelibly connected to two of the biggest tragedies in recent British history. All that for another day…

Away from football, ‘YNWA’ (those Liverpool fans might be on to something here) has been recorded by everyone who’s everyone: Elvis, through Roy Orbison, to Susan Boyle. It would literally take half an hour for me to type out all the artists who’ve done their take in the song. Gerry and The Pacemaker’s version remains, in the UK at least, the definitive one. But I’ve not answered my initial question from several paragraphs back… Why on earth did they take such a big step away from their Merseybeat roots, and so early in their careers? Could it have, perhaps, been their downfall? You can’t imagine The Beatles ever recording a showtune, can you? It was the band’s last #1, and they would only have three further Top 10s. By 1965 their chart-careers would be over. It’s a huge collapse (similar to the way Liverpool threw away the league title at Crystal Palace a few seasons ago… I couldn’t resist…)

Still, three #1s from their first three singles was an unprecedented achievement at the time, and one that wouldn’t be matched for over twenty years. They split up in 1966, with Gerry going into cabaret and children’s entertainment.

Before we finish, I have one big problem with this record (and it’s nothing to do with football). I’ve mentioned ‘The big finish’ a couple of times now; but the song doesn’t actually have one. The song build and builds, and builds, for two minutes and twenty seconds, and is crying out for a huge, epic, grandiose finish. But they bottle it. In the middle of the last ‘never’, Gerry pauses, the soaring violins fall away, and the song ends with a bit of an anti-climax. It’s a strange decision. I don’t know if it was Marsden’s, another band member’s, George Martin’s or maybe even Rodger’s or Hammerstein’s back in the forties. But for me it doesn’t work. It leaves me feeling a little flat. I’ll leave it to the crowd at Anfield to give this song the big finish that it deserves.

152. ‘I Like It’, by Gerry & The Pacemakers

Act III of the Merseybeat spring offensive sees Gerry and the lads score a quick return to the top. ‘How Do You Do It?’ and ‘I Like It’ acting as the bread; The Beatles’ ‘From Me to You’ as the filling. A sandwich to change pop music as we know it.

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I Like It, by Gerry & The Pacemakers (their 2nd of three #1s)

4 weeks, from 20th June – 18th July 1963

The previous two songs were super perky, ultra-upbeat, and positively dripping in youthful enthusiasm, and the formula isn’t altered very much here. We get a swingin’ little intro, and then: I liiike it, I liiike it…! If you didn’t know that Gerry & The Pacemakers were Liverpudlian, then you do know. This is a great record, but Gerry Marsden’s scouse rasp is possibly the highlight of the whole shebang.

I liiike it…. I liiike itI like the way you run your fingers through my hair… And I like the way you tiddle my chin… I docked ‘From Me to You’ a couple of points for being a little simple, a little gauche. And I suppose I’ll have to do the same thing here… Except. The charm of this song – of this whole embryonic musical movement – is its down-to-earth charm. These are regular blokes singing a regular, catchy song about love; there are no flowery romantic declarations from note-perfect crooners (see: Frank Ifield) or glossy-teethed American superstars (see: Elvis) here.

Look, for example, at the line: And I like the way you straighten my tie, And I like the way you’re winkin’ your eye, And I know I like you…! Or the And I like the way you let me come in, When your mama ain’t there…. (wink wink) It could have been written by a fourteen-year-old, and that’s all part of the allure. I suppose all the big British pop movements had their roots with kids on the streets: punk, Britpop, garage… and Merseybeat is no different. Music for kids; by kids.

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Just like its immediate predecessors, ‘I Like It’ is another short, sharp pop song; another two minute wonder. And like all the best pop songs there’s nothing too sophisticated going on here. In fact, I’ve covered many better-sung and better-performed songs on this countdown. But… this is the glorious sound of four boys jamming away in their garage, and it presses all my buttons. And ‘boys’ they truly were – Gerry, his brother Fred, Les and Arthur were all aged around twenty when their careers went stratospheric. For a while, in the summer of ’63, the smart money might have been on this four-piece going on to be the biggest band on the planet…

But, of course, that didn’t happen. Perhaps the reason I was a bit harsh on ‘From Me to You’ in my last write-up is that it comes loaded with the knowledge of what The Beatles would go on to do. It’s a perfectly decent pop song but, in my opinion, wouldn’t come near a Beatles Top 20. Whereas, ditties like ‘How Do You Do It?’ and ‘I Like It’ were as good as it got for Gerry and the gang. This is all we know them for; and that’s fine.

Before we finish, I’d like to indulge in a bit of a metaphor. Bear with me, and picture if you can these three Merseybeat chart-toppers from April-July 1963 as a huge meteor killing off hundreds of dinosaurs. These dinosaurs being… *clears throat* … Adam Faith, Anthony Newley, Michael Holliday, Frankie Vaughan, Alma Cogan, Helen Shapiro, The Everly Brothers, Tommy Steele and countless other artists who never topped the UK charts and who I can’t therefore link to… Their careers were all pretty much obliterated (or, at least, heavily affected by) this unstoppable Merseybeat fireball. May they rest in peace. Vive la revolution!

150. ‘How Do You Do It?’, by Gerry & The Pacemakers

It comes on like some kind of whirlwind, this new sound. A whip-snapping intro with a jabbing piano riff, tight guitars and machine-gun drums. The revolution is here.

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How Do You Do It?, by Gerry & The Pacemakers (their 1st of three #1s)

3 weeks, from 11th April – 2nd May 1963

It’s kind of like rock ‘n’ roll music has undergone a software update – the way that your laptop updates, say, Skype without you knowing and now it’s still Skype but with new colours and maybe rounded corners… This is clearly rock ‘n’ roll – we’ve got guitars and drums and perky lyrics about being in love – but it sounds so fresh, so new. Same same; but different.

How do you do what you do to me, I wish I knew, If I knew how you do it to me, I’d do it to you… These are pretty relatable lyrics – no flowery pretence here. In fact, they could be interpreted as pretty raunchy: When I do it to you… Do what, sir! And to whom!?

The bridge is my favourite bit here – the Like an arrow, passin’ through it… line really works. And then he yelps the song’s title – desperate and frenzied – How do you do it!? As a song it’s very short, and to the point. Four verse-choruses, two bridges and a solo rattle by in one minute fifty-five. Then it’s done; but pop music has changed.

I think it might all be in the voice. Bear with me. Gerry Marsden has an accent – a scouse, Irish accent – that makes him sound like a bloke from down the pub. All the British singers to have topped the chart, with the exception perhaps of Lonnie Donegan, have sounded ‘proper’. Or, in the case of Tommy Steele, they were putting on an accent. But here, Marsden is just singing like he speaks, with a rasp in his vowels, squeezing ‘suppose’ into ‘spose.

I can think of only one record that we’ve heard so far, that’s sounded like such a leap forward, and that was ‘Rock Around the Clock’. I’ve said it before, but hearing these #1s in context, in the order that they topped the charts, really makes the truly special ones stand out. Listening to ‘How Do You Do It?’ barging in after so much Cliff, mid-career Elvis, and Frank Ifield, really does make it sound like a shot of adrenalin, rather than the mid-level Merseybeat pop that it might come across as on a compilation album. And, to me, the fact that this was Gerry & The Pacemakers debut chart hit makes it all the better – they really are arriving out of nowhere to shake up the charts.

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Of course, it might have been even better if The Beatles had been the first ever Merseybeat #1. They came close (there’s a lot of controversy about ‘Please Please Me’ topping various charts in early-1963, but not the ‘official’ ‘Record Retailer’ chart) but it wasn’t to be. In truth, Gerry and the Pacemakers were The Beatles Mk II. They were from Liverpool, cut their teeth in the same clubs and bars, were discovered by Brian Epstein and produced by George Martin. The Beatles did record ‘How Do You Do It?’, but rejected it as a single. Things might have been so different…

But The Fab Four didn’t have long to wait for their own chart-topping run to begin, and within a year they had surpassed their local rivals, conquered Britain, then the US, then the world. But for most of 1963, Gerry and the gang were every bit as big as John, Paul and co. We’ll be hearing from them again very soon, with what I’d class as an ever better song that this.

When I was eleven or twelve, I started making mix-tapes based on hits from particular decades. Nineties, seventies – I wasn’t big on the eighties back then – and sixties. But my ‘sixties mixes’ always started in 1963, with Merseybeat. Everything before that just sounded really old – very misty and a little bit scary… Like I was listening to ghosts. Then, eventually, I discovered Elvis, then Chuck and Buddy, and realised that this wasn’t true. But, there’s still a feeling – shared by many – that modern pop music started in the spring of ’63. That this is Pop Year Zero. And I can see why. Listen to ‘The Wayward Wind’, by Frank Ifield. That’s an old-fashioned, easy-listening track that could have been a hit ten years back. ‘How Do You Do It?’ sounds so fresh that it mightn’t have been a hit ten weeks back.

It’s been fun, writing about the previous hundred and forty-nine UK number one singles. I’ve discovered some great new songs, and found unexpected layers to what I’d previously thought of as simply ‘Pre-Rock’ and ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll’. But with this latest chart-topper, we’ve well and truly opened a new chapter… Onwards!