454. ‘Going Underground’ / ‘The Dreams of Children’, by The Jam

Well, isn’t this quite the shot of adrenaline! The line between new-wave and punk becomes very blurred as The Jam score their first number one single…

Going Underground / The Dreams of Children, by The Jam (their 1st of four #1s) 

3 weeks, 16th March – 6th April 1980

The guitars are tight, and fast. Lead-singer Paul Weller spits the opening lines out with venom: Some people might say my life is in a rut! But I’m quite happy with what I’ve got! It’s a record that grabs you by the lapels of your smart, modish suit and doesn’t let you go. These angry young men are not happy with modern life, with their leaders’ lies and atomic crimes, and are off underground.

The lyrics are not always easy to make out – delivered as if Weller just has to get them off his chest before their three minutes are up – but one line stands out: The public wants what the public gets, But I don’t get what this society wants… I’m going underground…! And then there’s the ‘braying sheep’ on his TV screen. They’re words that ring just as true today – you could probably apply them to any point since WWII, to be fair – but after an economically difficult seventies, and less than a year into Thatcher’s government, dissent is growing…

‘Going Underground’ really does sound very raw, and very punk. It could be a hit from 1977, and is much more primitive when compared to new-wave’s two other big guitar bands, Blondie and The Police. This is perhaps The Jam’s last moment as an ‘underground’, if you will, band. This hits number one, and their sound expands and progresses. Only in the break, before the final chorus, does it sound a little more of its time, drippy and echoey, but only for a second before the guitars chop right back in.

‘Going Underground’ was actually only listed as the double-‘A’ due to a printing error. ‘The Dreams of Children’ was intended to be the lead, and it does sound much more of the moment. It starts with a cool false-beginning, guitars and vocals played in reverse, and has a great, chiming riff. But, I’d say it lacks the urgency of the flip-side. I hope that whoever buggered things up at the printing plant wasn’t punished too harshly…

If you were hoping for a more positive take on modern life here… well, nope. Paul Weller is having sweet dreams – the innocent dreams of a child – but wakes sweating and paranoid to this modern nightmare… I was alone and no-one was there… Before long, the song has turned into a sort of horror movie theme, voiced by a sinister dream-catcher.

Something’s gonna crack on your dreams tonight, You will crack on your dreams tonight… he sings, as the twiddly backwards effects return and things get genuinely creepy. Sorry kids, your dreams are just that: dreams. Real-life will grind you down. I mean, it’s not your run-of-the-mill #1 single material, but everything can’t be all sweetness and light. Neither of these songs sounds like a chart-topper, but it’s great that they got there.

And they got there in some style. This was the first record to enter at #1 since Slade did it with ‘Merry Xmas Everybody’ over six years ago. Elvis, Cliff, The Beatles and, er, Gary Glitter were the only other acts to have achieved this feat before 1980. It pretty much announces The Jam as one of, if not the, biggest band in the country (or at least the band with the most devoted fanbase, who ran out to buy the song as soon as it was released…)

However, can I just add before I go that it is a shame that The Jam’s previous single – their first Top 10 hit – wasn’t the big #1 debut. As great as this record I’ve reviewed today is, ‘The Eton Rifles’ stands as a brilliant commentary on the British class system: angry, and funny, and another one that still rings true today. We just don’t learn, do we?

303. ‘I’m Still Waiting’, by Diana Ross

For the second time this year, a former member of one of the sixties biggest groups scores a solo #1 single. From George Harrison, to Diana Ross. From The Supremes, to Diana Ross & The Supremes, to Diana. Just Diana.

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I’m Still Waiting, by Diana Ross (her 1st of two #1s)

4 weeks, from 15th August – 12th September 1971

The first word that comes to mind when this record intros is ‘polished’: polished strings, glossy production, not a dollar spared. Ross’s vocals, when they come in, are breathy and crystal clear. I remember when, I was five and you were ten, boy… Diana Ross, as always, has a voice you could swim in.

She’s loved this lad since they were kids, thought they were destined to be together, only to one day be told: Little girl, Please don’t wait for me, Wait patiently for love, Someday it will surely come… But Diana can’t take this advice, can’t give up on her first love. She’s still waiting.

It’s a record that I’m struggling to get into. I can see that it’s good – well-structured and beautifully recorded. It’s pop, but for grown-ups. Sophisticated soul. By the seventies, the people who had grown up buying pop music were getting older, and that starts to show in the number of AOR/MOR (not sure if these terms existed in 1971, but still) tracks that will become huge hits in this decade. Pop was no longer just for teenagers.

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And as I play it again, ‘I’m Still Waiting’ is slowly growing on me. I don’t love it, yet, but it’s gradually imprinting on my brain. It’s not short of hooks – the Little girl chorus is catchy, as is the And I’m still waiting… that hangs at the end of each of chorus. And there’s the I’m just a fool…! from the backing singers. And then, Diana speaks. Love has never shown his face, Since the day you walked out that door… Come back, Can’t you see it’s you I’m waiting for…

Will he ever come back? We’ll never know. The song shimmers to a fade-out. I can’t say I knew much about this record before writing this: it’s not one of Ms. Ross’s many hits that I could have named, that didn’t top the charts. Apparently it was one Tony Blackburn who plugged this album track so much on his radio show that Motown gave permission for it to be released in the UK. And it’s a sign of Ross’s longevity and sheer star quality that this #1 comes seven years after her first chart-topper with The Supremes (‘Baby Love’) and fifteen (!) years before her next chart-topper. She was a huge musical presence for the best part of five decades, and it’s been nice to discover this forgotten gem.

Listen to every number one single so far, here.

‘Look at That Girl’, by Guy Mitchell – The UK Number 1s Blog Anniversary Special

This week marks the 1st anniversary of The UK Number 1s Blog (** Trumpet Fanfare**)! In the past year we’ve covered the period from Nov. ’52 to Nov’ 61, with 129 chart-topping songs featured. We’ve survived pre-rock, rode the rock ‘n’ roll revolution, and are now well on our way towards the swinging sixties… Thanks to everyone who has read, followed, commented and enjoyed.

To celebrate this milestone, I’m going to take a short break from the usual countdown to repost seven songs that I have really enjoyed discovering over the past year. These aren’t necessarily the best songs to have topped the charts – there’ll be no Buddy Holly, Johnnie Ray, Connie Francis, Elvis or The Everly Brothers (follow the links if you want to read about them) – as I’ve been listening to, and loving, those artists for years. This week will be all about the forgotten gems, the hits I’d never heard before, the songs that have slipped through the cracks…

Song Number Three is by the artist that I’ve ‘discovered’ the most over the past year. I’d heard the name ‘Guy Mitchell’ before, but didn’t know any of his songs. His career was the 1950s – he was a regular in the Top 10 between 1952-’59, with four #1s along the way. ‘Look at That Girl’ was his 2nd, and I’ve picked it as I think it was the 1st ‘modern’ pop song (verse-chorus etc) to top the charts, and it was also the first to feature a guitar solo! Plus, he had a voice every bit as sexy and smooth as Elvis. Enjoy!

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Look at That Girl, by Guy Mitchell (his 2nd of four #1s)

6 weeks, from 11th September to 23rd October 1953

Ladies and Gentlemena, we are finally rocking and rolling. The invasion is here!

Not at first, mind. We begin on familiar territory. We’ve got the jaunty guitars from ‘Don’t Let the Stars…’ and Mitchell’s previous #1, ‘She Wears Red Feathers’ (compared to which this is ten times better!), and some trumpets (or clarinets, or bassoons, whatever…), and Mitchell’s voice still sounds like he thinks he should be singing a comedy number.

Look at that girl, she’s like a dream come true… Ah look at that girl, can blue eyes be so blue…? But this is no simple song of longing. No, Sir. It turns out the girl is already his. We think. With each word my heart just skips, oh if I could kiss those lips… He’s keeping it ambiguous. Maybe they’ve got a thing going. Maybe not.

And as the song goes on – we start to rock. And I don’t mean ROCK (tongue out, fist raised). I mean ‘rock’, like it’s 1953. There are hand-claps. Mm-hmm. And a guitar. Woo! And Mitchell has a little call and response with the backing singers, when they take the lead lyric Look at that girl… and he quips back I don’t believe it they’re making it up! And then there are the lyrics: the kissing, the holding her tight… Pass the smelling salts…

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It sounds to me as if a battle is taking place here, between traditional easy-listening and the burgeoning rock ‘n’ roll movement. On the one hand you’ve got the usual twee backing singers and floaty trumpets, parping away at the end of each line; on the other you have the hand claps and the guitar solo. That’s right. Solo. In a symbolic move, the trumpets begin the solo and play it in tandem with the guitar for a couple of bars, before the guitar takes it over completely.

And having said that Mitchell sings the song with a slight giggle in his voice, after the 3rd or 4th listen it works. He’s having a good time. We’re having a good time. He’s a nice singer – he sounds like he could be belting it out if he wanted to, but he doesn’t. The song doesn’t require belting out (That’s something old Eddie Fisher could have learned to look out for…)

If you stick with this blog for long enough, you’ll soon see I’m a sucker for a straight-up, unpretentious pop song. A couple of verses, couple of choruses, a solo and a final verse. Maybe a key change. Then finish. The sort of song that sounds simple but is pretty darn hard to get right. (I say, having never even attempted to write a song in my life). This is one such song. And I like it. It’s my favourite so far.

‘Don’t Let the Stars Get in Your Eyes’, by Perry Como with The Ramblers – The UK Number 1s Blog Anniversary Special

This week marks the 1st anniversary of The UK Number 1s Blog (** Trumpet Fanfare**)! In the past year we’ve covered the period from Nov. ’52 to Nov’ 61, with 129 chart-topping songs featured. We’ve survived pre-rock, rode the rock ‘n’ roll revolution, and are now well on our way towards the swinging sixties… Thanks to everyone who has read, followed, commented and enjoyed.

To celebrate this milestone, I’m going to take a short break from the usual countdown to repost seven songs that I have really enjoyed discovering over the past year. These aren’t necessarily the best songs to have topped the charts – there’ll be no Buddy Holly, Johnnie Ray, Connie Francis, Elvis or The Everly Brothers (follow the links if you want to read about them) – as I’ve been listening to, and loving, those artists for years. This week will be all about the forgotten gems, the hits I’d never heard before, the songs that have slipped through the cracks…

Next up is Perry Como, with ‘Don’t Let the Stars Get in Your Eyes’ – another song that surprised me with its upbeat tempo (and funky trumpet solo). And like Kay Starr, he was another artist with enough about him to make it out of the pre-rock age alive…

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Don’t Let the Stars Get in Your Eyesby Perry Como with the Ramblers (Como’s 1st of two #1s)

5 weeks, from 6th February to 12th March 1953

One of my biggest chart bugbears, back when I started chart-watching, was one-week number ones. In the late ’90s and early ’00s it seemed like there were a never ending parade of songs waiting to shoot straight in at number one, only to be replaced by another brand new song a week later, as if record companies had worked it all out beforehand in some sort of dastardly pact. And I assumed that it never used to be that way, that ye olden charts were creaky, slow moving things where records languished at the top for weeks and months. Which is true to an extent – Al Martino had nine weeks, and wasn’t alone in having that length of stay, while later in 1953 we’ll reach the song which still holds the record for most weeks at number one…

But what we have here is a fourth new chart topper in as many weeks. It turns out that the record buying public of the pre-rock era were just as fickle as those in 1999! Perry Como, though, did halt the turnover and kept this jaunty little tune at the top for a month and a bit. That’s star quality shining through.

This track is a welcome relief after its overwrought predecessor. Perky guitars, a lively brass section, and tongue-twister lyrics: Love blooms at night in daylight it dies don’t let the stars get in your eyes or keep your heart from me for some day I’ll return and you know you’re the only one I’ll ever love delivered in just the one breath. This seems to have been a thing, a gimmick almost (at least it seems gimmicky to modern ears), as Kay Starr was at it in ‘Comes A-Long A-Love’. It’s not vocal gymnastics of the Mariah Carey kind; more lyrical gymnastics, if such a thing can exist.

We’ve also heard similar lyrics already in this countdown, in that Como is telling his sweetheart not to forget about them, or to stray, while away. The best bit of it all, though, is the trumpet solo. At least I think they’re trumpets; I really can’t tell one brass instrument from the other. Anyway, they put me in mind of the oompah band at a German Bierfest.

The one downside to the song is the backing singers, The Ramblers. They’re just a bit… barbershop, in that they are basically there to repeat verbatim the line that Como just sang. In case some one missed it? I don’t know. And their one bit of improvisation is to sing what sounds like pa-pa-papaya between lines. Are they imitating the trumpets? Is it just gibberish? Are they actually singing about papayas?

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Perry Como (American! Died aged 88! The run continues!) is the biggest name to top the chart so far. I’d say, at least. Both of the female chart toppers were new to me, Al Martino was known to me solely as the singer of the first ever UK #1, and Eddie Fisher had entered my consciousness due to his ladykilling (the romantic type of ladykilling, that is). Perry Como was a big star and I could have named his biggest hit (‘Magic Moments’, fact fans) without looking it up. And after looking up his discography it’s clear that if the the charts had begun earlier he would have racked up a load more hits – he was scoring US #1s throughout the ’40s. Now, in 2018, he’s no longer a household name, a Sinatra or Presley, I wouldn’t have thought. Very few of these stars from sixty-odd years ago are, I suppose.

‘Comes A-Long A-Love’, by Kay Starr – The UK Number 1s Blog Anniversary Special

This week marks the 1st anniversary of The UK Number 1s Blog (** Trumpet Fanfare**)! In the past year we’ve covered the period from Nov. ’52 to Nov’ 61, with 129 chart-topping songs featured. We’ve survived pre-rock, rode the rock ‘n’ roll revolution, and are now well on our way towards the swinging sixties… Thanks to everyone who has read, followed, commented and enjoyed.

To celebrate this milestone, I’m going to take a short break from the usual countdown to repost seven songs that I have really enjoyed discovering over the past year. These aren’t necessarily the best songs to have topped the charts – there’ll be no Buddy Holly, Johnnie Ray, Connie Francis, Elvis or The Everly Brothers (follow the links if you want to read about them) – as I’ve been listening to, and loving, those artists for years. This week will be all about the forgotten gems, the hits I’d never heard before, the songs that have slipped through the cracks…

First up: only the 3rd song ever to top the UK charts, in January 1953, and the song that showed me that the pre-rock years weren’t just going to be a procession of melodramatic ballads and perfectly-pronounced pop. Miss Kay Starr, take it away…

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Comes A-Long A-Love, by Kay Starr (her 1st of two #1s)

1 week, from 23rd to 30th January 1953

Snazzy! And jazzy! I really thought – and more fool me – that these pre-Rock ‘n’ Roll hits would be dull, twee, chaste… one step up the danceability chart from hymns, basically. How wrong I was. It wasn’t all bluebirds over the white cliffs of Dover.

Though bluebirds do feature in this song, they do so as a symbol of being in love and suddenly becoming aware of the world around you. Birds! Flowers! The sun! Comes A-Long A-Love suddenly though you never sang you’re always singing… Comes A-Long A-Love suddenly chimes you never heard begin a-ringing… The lyrical message being that falling in love will make you a better, livelier person.

Kay Starr’s voice is in complete contrast to the Jo Stafford record that went before. It’s husky, then sing-songy, she pauses where you least expect it and then rushes through tongue twister lines phrases like petty little things no longer phase you, which I’ll bet you can’t say five times fast. You might even say she’s flirting with the listener… And, yes, a quick search shows Ms. Starr was quite the little minx (that’s what they called them in those days). Those eyebrows! What didn’t they suggest! This song could be seen as a challenge – she’s daring you not to fall in love with her.

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But again, it’s another song that paints love in a positive light. Three number ones in and nobody’s had their heart broken… Even lonely old Al Martino was hopeful that his lover would say ‘yes’. That’s something I’m going to look out for: the first ever reference to heartbreak in a UK number one hit. And, again, Kay Starr enunciates so damn well. This isn’t an easy song to sing, but she makes it sound like she’s ad-libbing her way through it. I’ve got to hand it to these old-timers, before the days of auto-tune, because they really could sing. Gran was right all along…

Some bits do jar, slightly. Starr uses ‘Mister’, and ‘Brother’, in a way that you wouldn’t these days. And the aforementioned reference to being in love and seeing bluebirds is a bit of a Disneyfied image. It must have been easy for songwriters, at the birth of modern pop music – love is great, you see bluebirds, do-bee-do – before people discovered cynicism. So far, though, all three number ones have been recorded by American artists. Perhaps that explains the saccharine sentiments! As everyone knows, Americans are sickeningly positive. How brilliant would it be, then, if the first UK recorded #1 turned out to be a piece of proto-Morrissey miserabilism…

One final thing I’ve noticed, while looking up these first three UK chart toppers, is how long they all lived. Jo Stafford died in 2008, aged ninety. Al Martino died in 2009 at eighty-two. Kay Starr died in November 2016, having reached a grand old innings of ninety-four. That means two of them outlived Michael Jackson, who wouldn’t have his first number one hit for another twenty-eight years. They were made of sterner stuff in those days, mind.

107. ‘Tell Laura I Love Her’, by Ricky Valance

So, you know how I had a bit of a moan about instrumentals in my previous post, about them having no lyrics and being difficult to write about…? Well. How I find myself wishing that this next record was an instrumental…

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Tell Laura I Love Her, by Ricky Valance (his 1st and only #1)

3 weeks, from 29th September – 20th October 1960

Laura and Tommy were lovers, He wanted to give her everything, Flowers, Presents, And most of all… A wedding ring… (I’m not summarising here – these are the actual lyrics, verbatim) He saw a sign for a stock-car race, A thousand dollar prize it read…

Musically there is very little going on here. A lilting guitar guides us through the story of Laura and Tommy and, what with Ricky Valance’s stiff and stilted delivery, this could almost qualify as a spoken word track. If it weren’t for the overwrought chorus – Tell Laura I love here (Bum-Bum-Bum), Tell Laura I need her, Tell Laura I may be late, I’ve something to do, That cannot wait – which is caterwauled out like, well, a cat. On heat.

He drove his car to the racing ground… Actually, I will summarise, as I don’t think I can face typing much more of this doggerel out: Tommy gets to the race, finds out that he’s the youngest driver there, drives really fast, his car overturns in flames… As they pulled him from the twisted wreck, With his dying breath, They heard him say… Can you guess? Yep… Tell Laura I love her (Bum-Bum-Bum) etc and so on.

What we have here is an example of a uniquely early-sixties phenomenon: the ‘death disc.’ “Ballads lamenting tragic (and usually teenage) deaths in an extremely melodramatic fashion.” That pretty much sums up this song, with a large emphasis on the ‘MELODRAMATIC’. Often they were banned by the BBC, who felt that their lyrics were too upsetting for public consumption. ‘Running Bear’, which hit the top a few months back, was a death-disc of sorts, and we’ll meet at least another couple such songs over the next year or so, though unfortunately not the one true masterpiece of this genre: The Shangri-La’s ‘Leader of the Pack’.

Anyway, back to the song. We’re now in the chapel. Laura is praying for her beloved… It was just for Laura he lived and died, Alone in the chapel she can hear him cry… What can she hear him cry? But, of course… Tell Laura I love her (Bum-Bum-Bum)

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Boy, oh boy. The voice, the lyrics, the delivery, the weird rhythm… This is an irredeemable record, one of the very worst yet. If I were the BBC, I’d have banned it too. Can we just wrap it up here and move on? This happened, it hit #1 in the UK charts – a national embarrassment up there with Brexit – let’s never mention it again (except for in my next recap, where it will undoubtedly win worst song). Ricky Valance had a few other minor hits and now performs for old folks on the Costa Blanca in Spain.

Actually, to finish, I should mention that I have a friend called Laura, and the first time that this song came to my consciousness was when she named it as the only song she knew with her name in it. Then The Scissor Sisters released their own ‘Laura’, and I remember her being happy. Having now listened to ‘Tell Laura I Love Her’ on repeat for the last half-hour, I can understand her happiness, and would like to thank The Scissor Sisters on behalf of Lauras the world over, for freeing them from the shadow of this song. Now if only someone could do the same for the Mandys…

75. ‘Stupid Cupid’ / ‘Carolina Moon’, by Connie Francis

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Stupid Cupid / Carolina Moon, by Connie Francis (her 2nd of two #1s)

6 weeks, from 26th September – 7th November 1958

A double ‘A’-side, which again means double the songs to write about. I’d better get cracking.

Connie Francis is back at the top. Three months on from ‘Who’s Sorry Now’s six-week reign at #1, ‘Stupid Cupid’ arrives to spend – you guessed it – six weeks at #1. She may only have had two chart-toppers, but twelve weeks in total at the top is nothing to be sniffed at. It reminds me of Rosemary Clooney’s chart run from a couple of years ago: two quick-fire chart toppers by a sparky female lead…

In ‘Who’s Sorry Now’, Connie was enjoying a bit of schadenfreude at her ex’s expense. Now, in ‘Stupid Cupid’, she’s back in love. Except she doesn’t want to be…

We start with a staccato sax, chugging drums, and then: Stupid Cupid, you’re a real mean guy, I’d like to clip your wings so you can’t fly, I’m in love and it’s a cryin’ shame, And I know that you’re the one to blame, Hey, hey, set me free, Stupid Cupid… Stop pickin’ on me! There’s a twang in her voice to match the twang in the guitar, and the song bounces along nicely. It’s a very sax-heavy track – with a chunky little solo in the middle – and it seems that we might be having a bit of a ‘sax phase’ at the top of the UK charts with this following on from ‘When’. It’s nice, considering that we’ve already had plenty of guitar and piano – the three main rock ‘n’ roll instruments taking their turn to dominate.

As with ‘Who’s Sorry…’, the best bit of this record is the bridge. It seems to be the point in her songs where Ms Francis really lets loose, belting the lines out while losing none of her sparkle: You mixed me up but good right from the very start, Hey! Go play Robin Hood with somebody else’s hea-a-a-art… Cue handclaps and a shimmy.

By the end of the song, however, it turns out that her reluctance in love has been a bit of front: Since I kissed his lovin’ lips of wine, The thing that bothers me is that I like it fine… The little minx! And the way she lingers over the final ‘I like it fine’ is perhaps the most playful, nudge-nudge, wink-wink moment of any chart-topper so far.

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Which makes the flip-side of this disc all the more disappointing… ‘Carolina Moon’, to be perfectly honest, is a bit dull. I get that you want to show off the different sides to a singer’s range – though in the previous double ‘A’ both Lonnie Donegan tracks were pretty similar. ‘Stupid Cupid’ is simply a really hard act to follow.

The sax is gone, replaced by a harmonica, a plinky piano and swaying guitars. Carolina moon, Keep shinin’, Shinin’ on the one who waits for me… Now Connie’s sitting at home pining for a guy. Make up your mind, love… How I’m hopin’ tonight, You’ll go, To the right, Window… Tell him that I’m blue and lonely… Dreamy Carolina moon…

I know Connie Francis’s music quite well, but somehow I’d never heard this before. And I wasn’t missing much. Lyrically, this pretty old-fashioned. There was a surfeit of songs back in 1953 / ’54 where people were waiting patiently for their distant loved ones. There was even one – ‘I See the Moon’ by The Stargazers – in which the singer implored the moon to ‘shine on the one they loved’. These days we’re used to something a bit more immediate, though, a bit less passive. Don’t just sit at home relying on the moon to tell the man of your dreams that you love him! Get out there and make him notice you!

Francis’s voice is still very nice on this record, but it lacks bite. She definitely sings better when there’s a bit of sass in the lyrics. This is just an average rock ‘n’ roll ballad… I had a sneaking suspicion that this might have been a pretty old song resurrected for the rock age, a la ‘Who’s Sorry Now’… And I was right. Wiki tells us that it was originally a hit way back in 1928.

And with this double whammy, Connie Francis’s short-lived time as a UK chart-topper comes to an end. Mopey songs about moons aside, her two lead singles have been highlights of the year so far. One a ballad with a spikey twist, the other a rollicking ride of a pop song. I’ll link here to some of her better non-chart toppers: songs such as ‘Where the Boys Are’, ‘Lipstick on Your Collar’, ‘Everybody’s Somebody’s Fool’, and hands-down the raunchiest song recorded in 1959: ‘Plenty Good Lovin’ (sample lyric: People say he’s not too smart, But he knows the way to a woman’s heart, Plenty of things that he don’t know, But this boy shines when the lights are low…) Oh, Connie. You are awful! I have a suspicion that we’ll be missing you before long.

39. ‘(We’re Gonna) Rock Around the Clock’, by Bill Haley & His Comets

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(We’re Gonna) Rock Around the Clock, by Bill Haley and His Comets (their 1st and only #1)

3 weeks, from 25th November to 16th December 1955 / 2 weeks, from 6th to 20th January 1956 (5 weeks total)

This is it. Strap yourselves in! A new era begins right… Now!

1, 2, 3 o’clock, 4 o’clock rock! 5, 6, 7 o’clock, 8 o’clock rock! 9, 10…

You know how it goes. Everyone does! Put your gladrags on, join me hon’…

It is undoubtedly ‘rockier’ than anything that’s gone before. Earlier chart toppers have featured guitars and drums – I’ve been surprised by just how many – but none have used the instruments in this way. The guitars stab at the listener, the double bass twangs and the drums bang out a very frisky rhythm. There are lyrics about dancing (more than just dancing…?) and never going to bed, while there’s also a pretty aggressive saxophone solo.

There are two things to consider here, both of which affect how I approach this seminal record. To my cynical modern ears, first of all, it sounds pretty tame, a bit of a nursery-rhyme, a bit babyish. Sixty-three years have done a lot to blunt its edge. Much in the same way that nobody in 2018 is going to be truly disturbed while watching ‘Psycho’, or truly terrified by ‘The Exorcist’, nobody is quite going to get the visceral thrill that this record must have provided when bored sixteen year olds across the land lowered the needle and heard that gunshot-drum intro.

Of course, ploughing my way through the thirty-eight earlier #1s, through the David Whitfields, the Eddie Calverts and the Vera Lynns, has undoubtedly helped this record to stand out. I can understand why this would have been thrilling to the kids and alarming to their parents. I can picture Aunt Marjorie clutching at her pearls. I get why it was so big; why it was the UK’s 1st million-selling record.

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But. Yes, now for the ‘buts’… There’s the well-trodden argument that ‘rock ‘n’ roll’ in this form was already just weak R&B, diluted for a white audience. And Bill Haley wasn’t exactly a shock-rocker. He was in his thirties by the time ‘Rock Around the Clock’ became a hit – plump and very white, with a weird-looking curl of hair stuck to his forehead. The rest of his Comets were similarly plain.

Plus, there’s the fact that this wasn’t a new song, at least not by the time it hit #1. It had been released almost a year earlier, hitting the lower reaches of the chart. Then it was re-promoted and crawled its way to the top, taking longer than any of this year’s other chart-toppers to get there. It certainly didn’t arrive at the top out of nowhere. And, it goes without saying, this wasn’t the first rock ‘n’ roll hit single. Number one singles don’t tell the whole story of the charts.

And, just to cap off my attempt to single-handedly destroy the reputation of this much-admired record, I’ve always thought The Comet’s follow-up single, ‘Shake, Rattle and Roll’ was much heavier, much more in the true spirit of ROCK (fists clenched!) with it’s misogynistic references to women, it’s sax-slash-guitar riff, and its genuinely raunchy lyrics: I’m a one-eyed cat, creepin’ in a seafood store (a very abstract innuendo, but think about it…) It was a cover of an even more raucous rhythm and blues hit, but only reached #4. Compare and contrast here.

So, in summary, this wasn’t the first rock ‘n’ roll record, or even the first hit rock ‘n’ roll record. It wasn’t the first release of the song, it hit the top in the UK nearly two years after it’s first recording, and Bill Haley recorded better, heavier rock songs. But… But, but, but. This is the one that everyone remembers. The times they were a-changing. Something has to represent this new musical wave, this spirit of teen rebellion, and this record is it. At least until Elvis comes along.

One final note. Back in the mid-nineties, when I had a short-lived attempt at learning the keyboard, this was one of the very first songs I could play. At least, I could play the intro. Just about. And this, perhaps more than anything, signals that we are in new territory here. I wasn’t learning ‘I Believe’, or ‘Rose Marie’. And yes, ‘Rock Around the Clock’ is a stupidly easy song to play – the intro is the same note played nine times in a row – but it is also a song that everyone knows. The mist is clearing, we are emerging from the pre-rock swamp, and an increasing number of these #1 singles are going to be songs that I, you, people, know.

38. ‘Hernando’s Hideaway’, by The Johnston Brothers

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Hernando’s Hideaway, by The Johnston Brothers (their 1st and only #1)

2 weeks, from 11th to 25th November 1955

It’s starting to feel like, rather than passing comment on each UK #1 single, I’m actually reviewing a soundtrack album. The soundtrack album to a very cheesy Western. ‘Rose Marie’ was the big ballad, ‘The Man from Laramie’ was the theme song, and now ‘Hernando’s Hideaway’ is…

What exactly is this? It’s hard to tell. Gone are the days when you could file pretty much every UK #1 under ‘overwrought ballad’ or ‘perky novelty. It’s another song that tells a story, about a drinking den – a dark secluded place, a place where no-one knows your face – and, again, has lyrics so obscure and specific that it must be from a film, or musical… There are silhouettes, and castanets, glasses of wine, and fast embraces. Hernando’s may actually be (whisper it!) more than just a bar…

Two lines in particular really set the scene: Just knock three times and whisper low, That you and I were sent by Joe, Then strike a match and you will know, You’re in Hernando’s Hideaway! It’s a very quirky song. And I mean that in the best possible way: the first forty seconds, for example, consist simply of voices and castanets. Then the violins kick in and we’re into a swaying, sweeping tango. Whereas ‘The Man from Laramie’ just sounded silly away from the context of the film; this song actually makes me want to watch whatever film or musical that it’s from.

And I could resist no longer – I had to Google and find out just where this funny little song originated. And it was indeed a show tune! (I’ve still got the knack!) A show tune from ‘The Pajama Game’: a musical about – wait for it – labour disputes in a pyjama factory… Seriously. It opened on Broadway in ’54, in the West End a year later, and thus explains the popularity of this track in the autumn of 1955. And when I say ‘popularity’, I mean ‘popularity’. Wikipedia lists 33 (thirty-three!) different recordings of the song. Contemporaneous to the Johnston Brother’s hit were versions from our friends Alma Cogan, Johnnie Ray and Mantovani, as well as versions yet to come from stars as varied as Ella Fitzgerald and The Everly Brothers.

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And what of the Johnston Brothers themselves? I had an image of identical twins, sharp suited and shiny-teethed. Bob and Billy Johnston, perhaps. Except, there were actually four members in the band – only one of whom was called Johnston. Johnny Johnston (great name!) formed the band and gave them their title. As the picture shows, they don’t look especially sharp or glossy (they were British, after all), and they faded away after a handful of hits.

‘Hernando’s Hideaway’ is proving to be one of those songs that improves with every listen. At first it was a curiosity; now I’m rather taken with the bizarreness of it. It is, I can say with complete confidence, the strangest UK #1 since The Stargazers hit the top with their barroom sing-along ‘I See the Moon’. Actually, 1955 has proven to be quite the eclectic year for chart-topping singles – the crazed sway of ‘Mambo Italiano’, the raunchy trumpets of Perez Prado, the lone-star yodelling of Slim Whitman. It hasn’t always been great, but at least it’s been interesting. Which wasn’t something we were saying back when David Whitfield and Frankie Laine were out-snoozing each other with their soporific ballads. 1955 has also been the year of the soundtrack hit, with this being the 6th chart-topper to emerge from a film or musical. Given that, as I write this, the UK Charts are filled with songs from ‘The Greatest Showman’ soundtrack, there’s a nice symmetry here. In some ways the charts of 2018 are unrecognisable from those topped by the Johnston Brothers; in other ways very little has changed.

Anyway, if this last bit has sounded like a round-up of sorts, well, it was kind of unavoidable. This has been the 38th UK Number One; and the end of an era. The ‘pre-rock’ era, that is…

37. ‘The Man from Laramie’, by Jimmy Young

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The Man from Laramie, by Jimmy Young (his 2nd of two #1s)

4 weeks, from 14th October to 11th November 1955

He’s back. Like Rosemary Clooney earlier in 1955, Jimmy Young grabs two chart-toppers – his only two chart toppers – in pretty short order. Burning briefly but brightly.

Back in the autumn of ’53, when Frankie Laine was pounding the charts with hit after hit, I introduced the concept of the ‘shadow hit’ – the song that does well because it follows on from a massive hit record. Laine spent 18 weeks at number one with ‘I Believe’ before the somewhat less memorable ‘Hey Joe’ grabbed a fortnight in its wake. Well, we have our second ‘shadow number-one’ right here. As much as I struggled to appreciate Jimmy Young’s interpretation of ‘Unchained Melody’, I cannot argue that it isn’t a classic and a 20th Century standard. ‘The Man from Laramie’, however…

It’s a song that tells a story. The story of a man. The man from Laramie. The man with the peaceful turn of mind, kinda sociable and friendly, friendly as any man could be… BUT underestimate him at your peril. For you never saw a man outdraw – the Man from Laramie! The ladies loved him, everyone admired him, danger was this man’s speciality… You get the picture.

Musically this is very watered down, music-hall Country & Western (BBC C&W, perhaps?) compared to the record it replaced at the top. The music itself is nothing more than an irritatingly simple rhythm picked out on a guitar. It’s all about the lyrics. And lyrically we are deep in the Wild West. Shoot-outs at noon, a fearless stranger with notches on his gun…

It’s a strange song. At least, it’s a strange song to have topped the sales charts for a whole month. The lyrics are so incredibly specific that they would only really make sense if they were from a musical or a movie (*Googles frantically*) And yes – ‘The Man from Laramie’ was indeed a film, a Western (obviously) starring James Stewart and this was the theme song. Our old friend Al Martino recorded – and only reached #19 – with his version. Jimmy reined supreme.

Out of interest, I gave the Martino version a listen. And while it’s the same cheesy song, with lyrics about shoot-outs blah blah blah that just sound weird away from the context of the movie, it sounds more professional, more polished, classier… better! I’ve mentioned it before – and I’ll doubtless mention it again – but this really has been a dominant theme among these early number ones. Americans really were doing it better. Why did they sound so cool, while the Brits still sounded so uptight and stuffy? Don’t believe me? Here’s a link to the Al Martino version. Compare and contrast it with the video below.

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I don’t need to go over again how I endured hours of Jimmy Young on the radio during my formative years (read all about it in the ‘Unchained Melody’ post). The hits dried up soon after he claimed these two chart-toppers and by the sixties he had moved into broadcasting where he remained popular and well-respected for four decades. I can’t help feeling, though, that he was someone who resented newer, more successful pop stars. I bet he loved complaining that you couldn’t make out a word Mick Jagger was singing. That music was so much better in his day. That kids these days didn’t know they were alive. He just had that air about him… (God, I clearly still have issues regarding those long car journeys that need working through.)

Anyway, if you enjoyed this latest chart-topper, this strange, time-capsule of a song with lyrical references to a movie that nobody has watched for decades, then you are in luck. Hang around for the 38th UK #1, coming shortly.